Hamburg at the Barricades.

Larrissa Reissner

Hamburg at the Barricades

An uprising passes by without trace in big cities. A revolution has to be great and victorious if the traces of havoc, its heroic abrasions and white bullet-scars on walls pock-marked by machine-gun fire are to be preserved on stone and iron if only for a few years.

Two or three days or two or three weeks later, together with shreds of newspapers and tattered posters either ripped front the walls by bayonet points or washed off by dirty showers of rain, the brief memory of street battles, churned-up roadways and trees thrown like bridges across river-like streets and stream-like alleyways also passes away.

Prison doors slam behind the convicted while fellow-fighters, thrown out of their factories, are compelled to look for work in another city or a remote district; those who are unemployed following the defeat take refuge in the most far-flung and anonymous nooks; the women keep quiet, the children, wary of the security policeman’s smarmy inquiries, deny everything. Thus the legend of the days of the Rising dies away, forgotten and drowned by the noise of restored traffic and resumed work. In corners of workshops a new group of workers that has taken over at the deserted benches in the factories may still repeat a name or two and recall the particularly good shots — but that too is passing away.

For a worker there is no history within the confines of the bourgeois state; the list of his heroes is kept by the drumhead courtmartial and the factory guard from a Menshevik [1] trade union. The bourgeoisie, once having cracked down with armed force, stifles the hateful memory of the danger it has so recently escaped.

Several months have already passed since the Hamburg Rising. But, strange as it may seem, its memory stubbornly refuses to vanish: yet the traces of barricades have been carefully smoothed over, trains run peacefully along the embankments and viaducts that served as defensive or offensive parapets and seagulls rest on them.

Three drumhead sausage-machines hastily shove the street fighters into jail; the doctors and prison inspectors have long ago returned to the next of kin the last corpses mutilated beyond recognition by brutality. And still the memory of that daring October endures. There is not a public house, workers’ gathering or proletarian family in the old free city of Hamburg in which the amazing scenes enacted on those outlying streets are not recounted with the pride of a participant or at least the involuntary admiration of an onlooker.

The explanation for the obstinacy with which the dockland proletariat maintains and watches over the memory of the October days lies in the fact that the Hamburg Rising was not smashed in a military, political or moral sense. The masses were not left with the deep gall of defeat.

The protracted revolutionary process that had impelled them to the barricades in October was broken neither on the 24th when the whole police force and a crack Black Hundred unit of marines and Reichswehr forces were mobilised, nor on the 26th when compact police formations, thousands-strong cavalry and infantry detachments and whole platoons of armoured cars finally burst into the revolutionary suburbs which several hours before had been voluntarily abandoned by the workers’ hundreds. On the contrary, the movement that surfaced in October to rule the city for sixty hours, cracking the enemy’s head everywhere he dared to launch an assault upon the skilfully placed barricades, cost the workers only ten dead but the police and troops dozens and hundreds of dead and wounded and afterwards calmly led its combatants out of the fire, saved and hid their weapons, brought its wounded into secure refuges in a planned retreat and then returned underground so as to be able to re-emerge at the first call of the all-German revolution.

The beginning of the revolutionary movement has to be counted not from October but from August of last year when Hamburg had become the arena of successive bitter wage battles, for an eight-hour day, pay based on the gold equivalent and a whole range of not only economic but also purely political demands: a workers government, control of production and so forth. These trade union battles were accompanied by a rising strike fever and stormy outbursts of growing revolutionary hatred: raids on food warehouses and assaults on police and blacklegs. It was during these months especially that Hamburg working women distinguished themselves, being, like all women from large ports, far more resourceful and politically mature than their comrades in the majority of Germany’s industrial centres. In the August of that year it was they who barred their husbands’ and workmates’ way into the striking shipyards. Neither police bayonets nor the weak-willed crowds of workers who were ready to meet their employers on any conditions could thrust their human chain back from the Elbe tunnel. One of these dashes ended with the disarming and beating up of a police detachment and, in particular, of the lieutenant who led it: for this he was drowned in the cold dirty waters of the Elbe.

This movement starting in August could not have ended in fiasco as the bourgeoisie crowed. Nor could it have fallen with the brilliant military demonstration of 21-26 October but only with the defeat or victory of the whole German working class. In this continuity and in this constant and protracted growth which marks the work of the Hamburg comrades lies the crucial distinction between an armed uprising and the so-called political ‘putsch’.

A ‘putsch’ has neither past nor future; only total victory or an equally irrevocable and futile defeat. A revolution, if it is to be powerful and guided by a strong and elastic battle-ready party, must be able to spring itself, pull back and recoil even after the most reckless sally. But a weak, politically untrained and untempered proletariat will live only in the hope of a brief blow, an outburst and very sharp, bloody but unsustained effort. Such a brief blow may well cost enormous sacrifices and the utmost effort but fragile and loosely-knit masses will face anything provided that beyond that momentary assault there glimmers some hope of an ephemeral but incontestably complete and final success. If after such an attempt at seizing power there follows a setback for one reason or another these masses will fall out of line, drop out of any organisation and reinforce their defeat with acrimonious self-criticism. Regular cadres of politically mature masses will, on the other hand, return from a storming operation to their old entrenchments still equal to long, gruelling, slow siege, sapper work in the underground and daily harrying operations. The Hamburg Rising, by virtue of the prolonged political process leading up to it and even more by the absolutely brilliant work carried out in the days and weeks immediately following its liquidation, forms the classic example of a truly revolutionary uprising, evolving a quite remarkable strategy of street battles and a faultless retreat, unique of its kind, that left the masses with a sure sense of superiority over the enemy and an awareness of moral victory.

Its results are unquestionable: never before has the collapse of the old trade union organisations reached such elemental proportions as it did after those very October days. From 25 October to 1 January more than thirty thousand members, each of many years standing, dropped out of the ranks of the Menshevik trade unions. We shall go into detail below on the dastardly role played by the trade union bureaucracy and its right wing during the October days. The United Republicans and the Fatherland Defence Leagues, acting as a Menshevik household guard, publicly relieved the police in the quietest districts, thereby allowing the latter to concentrate on subduing Hamm and Schiffbek. More about that below — here we shall just note that all these bellicose exploits by social democracy led to party cards being torn up and dumped in heaps at the doors of its recruiting offices.

They lay in piles on the doorstep and hundreds of workers, risking arrest or being shot by Reichswehr patrols, made their way to the trades union hall to toss their card at the treachery-besmirched face of the bureaucracy. A whole number of the major trade unions in the coastal region such as, for example, the Amalgamated Union of Building Workers, came apart at every seam after the October Rising. It was physically impossible to restrain members from a demonstrative mass exodus from the union. I managed to attend the meeting of one of the builders’ branches that had, eight-hundred-strong, decided to leave the union and organise its own association. Among those present were middle-aged men, not all party members, masters of their trade and not short of employment, men who had paid their dues for decades.

At such a meeting old men choking with fury demanded a complete and immediate break with the ‘bonzes’. No communist could have more strongly hated or more deeply sensed the immeasurable decline of the old party. Communist Party (KPD) members endeavoured in vain to dissuade the meeting from forming a ‘break away union’ and to insist on undermining the bureaucracy from the inside by forming a solid opposition that could increasingly extend its influence…

Workers disown the union as something utterly filthy and unworthy of a single hard-earned penny contributed to its funds. They have become deeply convinced that a worker who remains in a Menshevik union for as much as a day forfeits his proletarian honour and becomes party to the falsehood, murders and betrayal of the SPD. After October, staying in the union, even for a middle-aged non-party worker became tantamount to service with the Sipo [2] or the Eins A.[3]

The Communist Party and the masses behind it have grown infinitely stronger, externally as well as internally. Their activity has not abated in spite of numerous arrests (incidentally the majority of comrades were seized not during the Rising itself but only when it was over and on the basis of voluntary denunciations made by SPD workers and neighbours). On the contrary all the walls of Hamburg are decorated with ineffaceable inscriptions. At every crossroads and on the corner of every public building the inscription is invariably painted up:’The Communist Party lives. It cannot be banned.’

Parliament may well vote for an Ermächtgungsgesetz (Enabling Act); Seeckt may well enjoy special powers and a White dictatorship may well gulp down the last dregs of tiny freedoms in labour legislation, yet the walls of all the huts where the unemployed register are pasted over with new little communist posters like wallpaper. They are sprinkled like snow from the gallery at all SPD meetings, stuck on pub walls and tram and underground train windows. The women of the outlying areas, where all the male population is on the run or in various prisons, demand that posters and leaflets be sent out and if they have one grievance it is the lack of a cheap communist newspaper. All this so little resembles a defeat that the drumhead court-martial judges, under pressure from the masses’ silent threat, try to mitigate the sentences. The convicted go to the fortress or hard labour camp with the pride and tranquillity of victors, in the unassailable certainty that the revolution will never allow their five, seven or ten years of solitary confinement to run their course, and with the most profound scornful disdain for the laws of the bourgeois state, the cowardly brutality of its police force and the seemingly triumphant weight of its prison walls. Such a faith cannot mislead.

So why didn’ t the whole country support the Hamburg Risings?

In the October days the whole of Germany was divided into two camps confronting each other and awaiting the signal for the offensive. But by then Saxony had already been inundated by the police and the Reichswehr. Thus by the time of the Hamburg Rising one of the revolution’s principal bridgeheads had in effect ceased to exist. Numerous groups of unemployed still filled Dresden’s nighttime streets but hard on their heels, alongside and ahead of them, Reichswehr units, armed, insolent and provocative, bit into the asphalt. A signal for battle given in Saxony at this moment would probably have become the signal for the mass slaughter of Saxon workers. During these very days a conference at Hamburg of workers employed in the great shipyards of Hamburg, Lubeck, Stettin, Bremen and Wilhelmshaven was demanding the immediate declaration of a general strike and the leaders only just managed to obtain from this policy-making conference a postponement of the strike for a few days — yet the workers’ conference at Chemnitz turned down a general strike. By now Saxony was under water and the proletariat, devoted to the left social democrats to the last, turned instinctively away from an unfavourable collision that could perhaps have been fatal to the revolution.

Berlin! Anyone who has seen Berlin in the October days will certainly recall a feeling of astonishing ambivalence or, rather, ambiguity as the basic feature of its revolutionary turmoil. Women and unemployed gave the streets a special tint. In the bread queues and in front of butchers’ windows smart urchins whistling the Internationale pushed through between knots of despairing women. The slide of the mark, the derisory benefits paid out to the unemployed, disabled and war widows, the inflated rates of pay, the breath-taking prices of immediate necessities, the ruination of the petty-bourgeoisie, the utter shamelessness of the Grand Coalition, the cupping-glass that the Ruhr had become, the repressions by the French, the quiet mischiefs done by German capitalists that had been dragged into the light of day by the press and, overshadowing all the newspaper columns, the spectre of the bloodied and coaldust-covered Ruhr — all these were the clear portents of a revolution at hand. Rich people’s motor cars were already avoiding the suburbs and the police turned a blind eye to the looting of bakers’ shops. On the outskirts artillery kept rumbling over the stony wastes, edging ever closer to the striking factories; the roar of lorries loaded with two tidily-formed lines of police did not moderate, but merely went to kindle the fury of the crowd besieging the markets and newspaper kiosk windows.

Yet at the same time, vast and totally passive masses of workers still subscribed to social democracy; hidden behind the backs of the unemployed and communists were the extensive layers of the bourgeoisified proletariat, greedily clutching at a piece of bread, domestic comfort and a pound of margarine, however many hours it might be needed to earn all that. A cowardly, shrill, disgruntled majority ready to sit out two or three days at home by the fire behind a cup of lenten coffee and the latest little sheet of Vorwärts until the shooting in the street dies down, the dead and wounded are carried away, the barricades dismantled and the victor, whoever he may be — a Bolshevik, Ludendorff or Seeckt — has put the vanquished in jail and a lawful government in the seat of power. Alongside an extremely active vanguard there was this distended, decayed, expectant rear ready in event of a failure to denounce a communist neighbour who had lain in a trench beneath the very window of some worthy socialist official concealed behind his net curtain.

In Berlin as in Hamburg (only certain quarters with a solidly working-class population excepted) the proletariat had to resist General Seeckt’s gendarmerie and troops in complete isolation without the active assistance of broad masses, without hope of rein forcements at the toughest moments and sometimes, as in Hamburg, with virtually no weapons. Nevertheless the rising in Hamburg undertaken in equally, or almost equally unfavourable conditions, not only did not lead to defeat but gave quite astounding results. The truth is that behind it stood the whole of working-class Germany that, unbroken by the counter-revolution in an open battle, could materially and morally cover the heroic retreat of the Hamburg pioneers.

Anyway, the job of a party out to conquer is nor just to keep a feverish watch out for the historic moment, that so-called ‘twelfth hour of the bourgeoisie’, when the hands of the clock of history hesitate for an instant and then mechanically count off the first seconds of the communist era.

There is an old German tale: a valiant knight spent all his life in a magic cave waiting for a slowly swelling drip of water glistening from the tip of a stalactite to drop finally into his mouth. At the last minute some absurdity would always stop him from catching the agonisingly awaited drip which would fall uselessly on the sand. The worst part of course is not the actual point of failure but the dead, hollow pause of disillusioned expectation between one burst and the next.

In Hamburg they did not wait for dew from heaven. What they here so neatly and tersely call Die Aktion was linked into a strong chain of uninterrupted struggle, knitted to what had gone before and finding its support in a future every day of which, be it one of success or failure, stands under the sign of a victory that will smash the world like the head of a steam-hammer.

Besides, the Rising occurred not in the province of Brandenburg, not in Prussia, and not in the Berlin of parliament, the Siegsallee and Seeckt, but on the Wasserkante, in English, the seaside.


Hamburg lies on the shore of the North Sea like a big wet fish lifted still quivering from the water.

Eternal fogs settle down on the pointed scaly roofs of its houses. Not one day remains true to its capricious, pale, windy morning. With the tide’s ebb and flow there follow in succession damp, mildness, sunshine, the grey cold of the open sea and the interminable relentless rain that drenches the glistening asphalt like someone standing on the foreshore picking up from the sea an old ship’s bucket — the kind used for baling out leaky boats that choke with water in a heavy swell– and swilling it out over gay Hamburg; Hamburg, as impermeable as a pilot’s oilskins, steaming with moisture, reeking like a seaman’s pipe, charred with the fires of the dockside bars yet standing firm under the torrential rain with legs set wide apart as if on deck, planted on the right and left banks of the Elbe.

All along the shores of this marvellous industrial inlet, nature has been universally eradicated like some prejudice left out of our life by the eighteenth century. Not an inch of ground left bare. Over a stretch of twenty or so miles are two trees, more resembling masts after a fire at sea than the useless living things they are: the one on the jetty is hunched up like an old woman walking against the wind on to whose thick woollen stockings and shivering legs the wind tosses shreds of angry foam; the other is at the offices of Hamburg’s greatest shipyards, Blohm & Voss.

This one only stays up out of fear; beneath it is a disgusting black canal into which factory waste flows from gaping pipes like inky vomit. A bridge, the guard’s cabin and, on the opposite bank in the pale light of five o’ dock in the morning, nothing but the shining windows of invisible blocks without walls or roofs in row after row up above the whole harbour, reaching out with their electricity to touch the very dawn.

But the greatest of all these wonders, and the shapeliest forms in this realm of shapely metal, are the light shadowy jibs of the world’s largest cranes that arch over the harbour. Lying at their feet like toys are transatlantic liners, fully fitted-out with their illuminated rows of portholes and hideous parts below the waterline, like swans out of water which have equally ugly underwater parts.

Here they are working three shifts, convulsively and ruthlessly.

Here, by wringing out the workers like wet washing, the German bourgeoisie is making its last futile attempts to surmount the crisis that paralyses it: building, creating new values and populating the oceans with its black-funnelled white ships from whose sterns flutter the old imperial black-white-red banners with scarcely noticeable republican pock-marks on one of their fields.

As they say, Hamburg has everything — the smoke of factory chimneys, the elephant-trunks of the cranes with which the iron mammoths ravage the holds and fill up the stone depositories, the light, gently sloping bridges crisscrossing the new-born ships, wet beds, the howl of the sirens, the coarse yells of the hooters, the ebb and flow of the ocean that makes sport with the jetsam and the seagulls that settle on the water like floats, and the neat cubical dark red brick masses of the warehouses, offices, plants, markets and customs houses all built in straight lines and looking like oblong piles of cargo recently stacked by the dockers.

Armies and legions of workers are employed in these shipyards, on loading and unloading the ships, in the innumerable engineering, oil-refining and chemical plants, the several large-scale manufacturing works and the vast industrial installations that cover Hamburg’s rear, that marshy, sandy hinterland, with an unbroken crust of concrete and steel.

The Elbe, this ancient, dirty, warm-watered coaching-yard for sea tramps, is continually extending and building on to its concreted backyards.

Here the sea horses throw down their baggage, gulp down oil and coal and get cleaned and washed while their captains give in their bribes at the customs, touch up the bills and have a shave before going ashore to their families; meanwhile the crews go off and get nabbed en masse in St. Pauli, a quarter for bars, gangs, ready-made dresses, pawnshops where the same garish, shoddily-made expensive dress can be lodged for half its price and finally the most astounding brothels. Ever since medieval times the back streets of the St. Pauli neighbourhood have been screened off from the city by strong iron gates open only at night. They are finely wrought with every conceivable device and whimsical detail, proudly decorated with the emblems and insignia of the craft’s guild. In the evenings a lighted window opens up in every door that gives on to a back street and there, on display, smiling into the endless rainy darkness, are the queens of these seamen’s paradises. They wear low-cut dresses, drawn in at the waist and trimmed with spangles and feathers, dresses in which the fashions from the end of the last century have survived to the present, as on sweet-wrappers and in the imagination of woman-starved seamen, and have always been thought to embody the supreme joy of living.

This line of living meat is sold with the utmost simplicity. Customers pass from window to window, examine the goods on display and disappear inside only to fly out into the road a short while later growling and cursing: St. Pauli’s doorkeepers are renowned for their muscle.

All languages echo and all nations mingle in the little taverns of this district. They are famed for their savage wit, egg grog and a total immunity from police intervention — in short, a wonderful blend of valeur, alcohol, revolutionary ardour, tobacco smoke and the latest hopelessly fallen, wilted sinner; she balances on the edge of a table swamped in bitter beer hastily repeating over a piece of bread and butter to some drunken Adam without name or face that most divine lie — about love.

The language spoken here is, as a rule, Hamburg’s language.

It is thoroughly soaked in the sea; as salty as cod; as round and juicy as a Dutch cheese; as rough, pungent and jolly as English gin; as slithery, rich and light as the scales of some large rare deepsea fish slowly panting among the carps and plump eels quivering their wet rainbows in a fishwife’s basket. Only the letter S, sharp as a spindle and as graceful as a mast, testifies to Hamburg’s old gothic and the days of the Hanse and the piracy of the archbishops.

Not only the lumpen-proletariat but the whole city is steeped in the lively, boisterous spirit of the port. It surrounds on all sides in a tight ring the bourgeois quarters situated around the Alster, a tidal lake in which the pulse of that same Baltic ebb and flow can still be felt. Villas hug the shore closely, leaving barely enough space to run through the neat gardens clad in flowers like swimming costumes, and tennis courts down the flight of steps to the shore.

Everywhere the excited, unclean breath of the suburbs blows down the necks of the patricians’ houses. A ring of electric trains firmly binds in the outskirts and squeezes them against the smart quarters like a steel band; along it, filling the coaches with the smell of sweat, tar and winey breath, a turbid stream of workers surges twice daily, bisecting the whole city on its way to the docks.

Consequently all of Hamburg is equally attentive to the lunchtime hooter at the shipyards, the boatswain’s whistle and the morning and evening call-over on the bank of the Elbe just as the smallest pool and the tiniest child-packed frog pond heeds the shudders of the distant ocean, the ocean that sends Hamburg its wealth and its winds that are as resilient as sails.

The bourgeois, the worthy burgher, is just as uninsured against contact and proximity with the proletarians as is his home. A lady going to the theatre is squashed between two portworkers who quite naturally put their greasy bags down on the soft seats.

A young thing from St. Pauli sits herself coolly down beside a civil servant’s wife, winks round at her neighbors and gets off at her stop on the arm of one of them; a worker cuddles his wife or girlfriend; a stevedore smokes out those around him with an incredible tobacco, some friends take a seaman home from a binge and the whole coach chuckles with them, thinking, speaking and laughing in the purest Hamburg Platt (dialect) that can turn any place into a jolly seaman’s fo’c’s’le.

All this is not very consequential from our point of view. But after Berlin where a worker with his tools has the right to travel only in a specially dirty old coach; where the superiority of the first and second classes is all but defended by the police; where an unemployed worker, rubbing his cold violet ears dares not seat himself on one of the Tiergarten’s innumerable and always vacant benches; after exultant bourgeois Berlin, the very air of Hamburg with its free and natural spirit smells of revolution.

At four or five o’ clock in the morning the lumpen-proletariat is asleep, wherever that might be, or is being forwarded on to the police station.

At a quarter to six, still by the light of electricity, the first high tide of workers begins.

Above the tramlines a railway hangs in the darkness and above that the short gleaming ribbons of the electric trains: all these thrust on to the pavement an army of dockers, hundreds of thousands of workers and hundreds and thousands more unemployed who besiege the wharves in hope of some casual employment. Each unit gathers around its foreman; in the blackness of tarry jackets and from behind backs humped with tool-bags there shines an oil-lamp like a colliery overman’s. After the call-over the regiments of workers split up for the hundreds of steamboats that distribute them around the yards and plants. They pour into the industrial city over four bridges. Troops and police keep a sharp eye to see that not one ‘civvie’ penetrates the industrial islands. But neither the bridges nor the hundreds of steamers that play their lamps and searchlights upon the river in a sort of unique carnival in a black oily Venice, suffice for the dense surge of the morning shift. A bright dry tube that pumps legions of workers across from shore to shore every morning and evening, has been laid deep beneath the Elbe’s waters.

At each end of the tunnel elephantine lifts raise and lower this human torrent to and from the concrete exits.

They move, these two lifts, screeching in their screw-like towers like two shovels unceasingly stoking living fuel into hundreds of furnace-like factories. Out of this forge came the Hamburg Rising.


Hamburg workers live a long way from their factories and shipyards, in a part of the city christened Barmbeck. This is one enormous barracks for workers where all the dwellings look like one another, common sleeping quarters in rented barracks joined together by the unclean, bare, damp corridors of the streets. Opening up at the ends of these streets like chinks are dreary squares that look more like public kitchens or conveniences, each with a dreary fountain under the tin sky. Across this already foul and filthy suburb crawls the gigantic caterpillar of the railway viaduct describing a steel semi-circle. Its slightly bowed legs cling to the asphalt with concrete suckers. A rattlesnake’s head tightly fitting between two blocks, vanishes amid the backyard crevices, blind walls and ravines crammed with bunches of giddy little balconies from which flutter drying linen and strands of wilting ivy that has had its fill of smoke and damp. The station building plants a wide, flat foot on the railway line’s tail, leaving a crack for the stream of passengers to pour through.

Directly opposite the station, behind a spiked railing from which shreds of old decrees dangle, stands one of the police stations with murky windows that resemble a detective’s shaded glasses. A guard on duty, that pock-marked monotony of police stations and the official’s tedious boredom and spite, chewed over like an already twice smoked and discarded cigarette-end picked up from the floor.

The port is open to workers only at certain times. It sucks in an army of workers at dawn and spits every one of them out in the evening. Troops remain in this deserted industrial fortress to guard the swing-bridges, turnstiles, and subways through which the dense flood of workers pours to the quayside. Not one worker lives within the port itself. Only the old and proven servants of the seigneurs of industry enjoy such a privilege; the sparse, obsequiously twinkling lights of their dwellings huddle timidly against the gigantic shadows of factory blocks slowly exhaling into the night and fog the human warmth they have swallowed up during the day. The guards pace up and down the quays using their bayonets to block the way of any stranger they want to check on and shining their lamps straight into his face:

“Who are you? Where’re you going? Why? Password..”

In Barmbeck the unrest began a week before the Rising. On Wednesday 17 October working women and office workers’ wives take over the markets and force the saboteur traders to continue business.

On Thursday and Friday they form a chain in front of the shipyards and send their shamed husbands back home. On the same day fifteen thousand unemployed workers and women demonstrate at the Heiligengeist Field. On Saturday an impressive rally at the Trade Union House from which thousands proceed to the City Hall and break through into the restricted zone surrounding it.

On the streets that evening tens of thousands of workers pace endlessly, stubbornly, intently and furiously along the pavements. The police arrest over a hundred people but the sombre promenades do not cease. News of the Reichswehr’s onslaught upon the workers of Saxony spreads like a fever. The masses are gripped by a terrible excitement. This is the eve of revolution.

On Sunday 21 October there is a conference of portworkers from the whole Baltic coast: from Bremen, Stettin, Schweinemunde, Lübeck and Hamburg. The majority of delegates are SPD but many have been sent from plants already several days on strike. They had already returned their membership cards to the metalworkers’ union which had declared these strikes to be ‘wild-cat’. There was a sharp clash between an old SPD-Mann, a Stettin delegate, a man covered in moss and mould from twenty-eight years of social-officialdom, and T. a square, big-boned, wide-browed worker who would pound his clenched fist like a shaft and was to grasp the reins of the Hamburg Rising in his iron hands.

Here, at this conference, T. had to urge on and restrain simultaneously. Like some old coachman, used to driving his heavily laden waggons up the steep icy slopes of the bridges, T. had both to kindle and damp down, scarcely keeping on his box while beating off the social-bureaucrats with piercing whipcracks, tugging on the foaming bits with the whole weight of his authority and grounding the rearing militancy that would argue no longer but was blind with rage.

The conference only just permitted the postponement of a general strike for several days. Only thanks to this resolution could a stormy meeting of full-time officials be convinced and brought to order.

On Sunday night a courier brings (false) news of an eruption in Saxony. The order for a general strike is immediately passed round the various quarters. Dozens of major enterprises support the Deutschewerft shipyards which have been locked out since Saturday.

The second shift of workers leaves the workshops, breaks through the police cordons and goes back to the city centre. By four o’clock the harbour is paralysed. A crowd, one-hundred thousand-strong, roams the streets of Hamburg giving it the look of a city already in the grip of the Rising.

A second courier: he speaks at meetings in Altona and Neustadt giving entirely fantastic news of the Russian Army mobilising and their submarines sailing to the aid of Hamburg.

In the dead of night a conference of the’chiefs’: the leaders of the Military Organisation receive their combat orders, taking them with a feeling of the deepest inner satisfaction. T., who has been fighting for a postponement for several hours, stopping up all the holes through which the movement might have spilled prematurely on to the streets, now lifts all the sluices and opens all the taps that still hold back the torrent of the Rising.

K. also was pleased. A few words about him.

A worker. A sergeant-major in the war who loathed with all his being what is called der preussiche Drill (Prussian army drill) in the trenches. He had received a commission for his bravery. Then, in one of the towns of occupied Galicia a major incident that nearly cost him his nice new epaulettes. Four weeks’ jail for boxing a major’ s ears in public. By 1918 K. is a member of the Hamburg Council of Workers’ Deputies. He takes part in the March Action. He had already, just after the Unification Congress, joined the KPD. One of the most active members of the Hamburg organisation. Taken all together, military training, courage, roughness, a portworkers’ jollity, the old sergeant-major’s precise abrupt speed and the knack of ‘delivering a rocket’, all these unexcelled qualities won K. popularity among the masses and a cautious, almost squeamish reaction from die Intellektuellen. And well they might for philistines don’t like grinning people with an invariable smell of Köm (Kümmel spirits) about them and the markedly crude language of the port.

Gaiety, roughness and a slight intoxication in the blood are considered incompatible with the calling of a European party hack.

After the August riots the party was literally deluged with spies. One of them, with the touch of an old provocateur, offered to supply a crate of arms, receipt of which would have led to the dismemberment of the military organisation. K. was charged with unmasking this police ruse. He drove off with the agent to collect the arms. On one of the bridges he coolly picked the man up by the scruff of the neck and dangled him over the side.

“Own up, you bastard.”

He owned up, got his due and vanished.

In periods of lull comrade K.’s wild energy turns him into a pub brawler and tyrant, terror and pride of a whole neighbourhood.

He meets a bunch of SPD men in a pub: Hamburg’s superb Köm mixed half-and-half with the excellent beer sharpens K.’s dialectic to the extreme. In the end the Mensheviks, aroused to a fury by the silent taunts of this giant with the narrowed, benign, crafty eyes, leap yelling into a fight. Taking the ringleader as his target K. snatches him from amongst his fellow-thinkers and flings him on to a grand piano. An incident, the police, broken noses and unimaginable chords from the unfortunate instrument. Inactivity is terribly dangerous for people like K. Yet in an active struggle they move forward into the front ranks.

During the Rising it was that same K. and the communist officer Kb. who saved Barmbeck from rout by a network of amazing barricades. More about them below.

At midnight the leaders disperse to brief and assemble the members of the workers’ hundreds. The party as a whole was, like the wide layers of workers not in the party, only to learn of the Rising during the morning after the seizure of all police stations by the military organisation’s commandos. The storming of the Polizeibüros was scheduled for dawn on 21 October, i.e. simultaneously in all parts of the city at 4.45 a.m, and, immediately following the takeover of the police stations, the capture and disarming of Wandsbek barracks. Until that point the military leaders, who had mobilised their men and had to spend the rest of the night with them, could not allow anyone to go home, put a light on or on any pretext go off to ‘say good-bye to the family’. Only thanks to such precautions were the police caught truly off-guard and disarmed with bare hands. The credit must go to T. and the other comrades who worked out this battle plan with him. The game was half won by prefacing the mass Rising with this silent unexpected blow by the military organisation which: 1) deprived the enemy of support points in the form of police stations; 2) armed the workers at the expense of the police; and 3) produced in the masses an awareness of victory already ensured, thereby attracting them more easily to join a struggle that had hardly begun. The government paid tribute to this dislocation caused by the Rising. Here is what Hamburg Polizeisenator (Police Commissioner) Hense, a social democrat, wrote about it:

“The worst thing about this Rising was by no means the numerical weakness nor the inadequacy of the forces placed at our disposal. No, what was so terrible (schreklich) was that this time, unlike all previous putsches, the communists were able to carry though their lengthy and thorough preparations in such secrecy that not a single squeak about it reached us. Generally we tend to be informed of everything afoot in the communists’ camp. Not that we have to keep special spies in their ranks. No, the Law-abiding public, in which I include workers who are members of the Social Democratic Party, usually keeps us informed about everything happening amongst the communists without any coercion.

This time the ‘law-abiding’ Mensheviks proved unable to forewarn the authorities about the Rising in preparation. The latter knew nothing of it, so little in fact that the state of siege that had kept the police on full alert the week before had been lifted by the government on Sunday, that is on the eve of the Rising.

But let us go back a few hours. Here are some trivialities that portray the mood of the party at the moment of mobilisation, the time when people are caught unawares, promptly shaken out of bed and led off by the scruff of the neck to goodness knows where. This is the twilight hour when, lying half-awake getting unbearably cold, you want to go back to sleep and everything is painted in a drab muddy colour — in short not quite the time when you get up to adopt a heroic posture. Everything is, as they say, rough and ready.

One of the leaders of the Rising goes round his Bezirksleiter (zone leaders) to pass on the order for the morning’s operation.

A street without life, a sleeping house, a somnolent, stuffy, snoring flat. The family of a very poor worker. He rose and dressed without asking why or lingering a minute. A calm handshake and a cigarette’s slowly receding ember in the dark.

Another nook — in one of the working-class quarters. The door is opened by the wife who helps her husband collect his things and holds a candle-stub over the kitchen table on which a map is spread out. For some time he primes himself and then, from the depths of his heart with a sense of the deepest relief:

“Endlich geht’s los …” (At last it’s beginning.)

In a third lair a wife to her husband who is dawdling over getting ready:

“Nu mock di man fertig” (Hurry up and get ready.)

Finally the St. Georg district. Here they’re not asleep. In a back room a lamp is alight, flicking the web of tobacco smoke. The landlady answers evasively — he’s at home and he isn’t and she doesn’t know anything. Cautious steps on the stairs and suddenly comrade R. appears in the doorway, his face smeared with soot, barefoot, with a cluster of rifles under his arm, his pockets stuffed with all sorts of ammunition. In shadow is the merrily grinning physiognomy of a character known around the dockland taverns as Rowdy (ruffian). What’s this? They have cleared out a whole armoury. This Genosse (comrade) is of course not quite a Genosse, only a sympathiser. But the speed and dexterity with which he unhooked the bolt and lifted the shop window … Rowdy prides himself on the simplicity of the great performer.

Meanwhile a comrade, having received the password and plan for seizure of the neighbouring police staton and all its arms, says with a note of deep regret:

“Mensch, den har ick dat jo nicht mehr neudig hat.'” (Hell, this is no use to me any more!)

The entire Barmbeck struggle lasting three days was in its first phase directed towards the railway line, the spinal column of the area, which the workers could not smash due to insufficient weapons and principally through lack of explosives. The position was complicated by the fact that one of the most difficult police stations, Von-Essen Strasse, was situated in the rear of the insurgents and had not been captured by them: it drew off and pinned down considerable insurrectionary forces throughout the struggle. This station stayed intact by a complete accident. When C., an enormously big man distinguished by an unusually cool temper, as impervious and as well rolled as fresh asphalt, had with two comrades broken through the station’s main entrance and rapped a stick on the table demanding immediate surrender, and the Blues and Greens[4] were already starting hesitantly to unfasten their stout belt-buckles, a second detachment from the unit came round from the back of the building, penetrated the yard and, puzzled by the utter silence reigning in the now occupied mouse-trap, opened fire at the station windows. The Sipos and Reichswehr men came to their senses, saw three unarmed workers in front of them, threw two of them to the ground catching C. off guard, barred themselves in the cellar and showered the invaders with hand grenades. The workers’ unit retreated. But at the very first intersection it was halted by Kb. who had already had his stubborn network of barricades put up to meet the troops.

One officer for the whole of the Hamburg Rising but how much he did for it! There was not a street in Barmbeck, not an alley, crack or chink not blocked up with a couple of plugs. Barricades seemed to sprout from the ground multiplying at an incredible rate. If there were no saws and spades, they were found. Residents were drawn into this excavation work: sweating, they dragged stones, broke up pavements and selflessly sawed up the sacred trees in the public gardens; they were ready to blow themselves to dust if that would save their cupboards, chests of drawers, beds and trunks from this frantic work of construction.

Only one old woman touched Kb.’s sleeve and beckoned him upstairs after her to take a wide sturdy board that was extremely handy for a barricade off her washstand — the pride of the whole household. The board was put into use and endured stoutly to the end — though this was an exception. The old romantic barricade has by and large had its day long ago. A girl in a Phrygian cap does not hold a tattered banner over it, Versaillaises in white galters no longer mow down the courageous gamin nor does the student from the Latin Quarter clutch his fatal wound in a lace handkerchief while a worker delivers his last bullet from the long old-fashioned barrel of the last pistol. Alas! The art of war has stuffed all this lovely romantic drivel back into the pages of school-books where it lives on ringed with the legends and powder-smoke of 1848. Today fighting is different. As a fortified wall between revolutionary rifles and government cannon the barricade long ago became a spectre. It no longer serves as a protection to anyone but solely as an impediment. It is a light wall assembled from trees, stones and upturned vehicles covering itself with a deep ditch, pit or trench that bars the way to armoured cars, those most dangerous foes of an uprising. It is in this trench that the meaning of the modern barricade’s existence lies. But the old-time barricade, now backed up by the field-trench that has migrated to the city from the dead fields of large-scale warfare, continues to serve insurgents in all good faith even if it is in rather a different fashion from its heroic great-grandfathers of 1791 and 1848.

Piled up across the streets impeding a proper view of what is actually going on beyond its menacingly jagged wings it causes the enemy’s attention to be focussed on it as his only visible target. The barricade courageously catches with its breast all the blind frenzied fire that troops rain down on their unseen enemy. Yes, here again is another new feature that has wholly changed the landscape of civil war and all its strategy and tactics. The workers have become invisible, elusive and almost invulnerable. For them the new method of warfare has devised a cap of darkness that no quick-firing weapon can reach. The workers fight rarely if at all in the streets, leaving these entirely to police and troops. Their new barricade, a huge stone one with millions of secret passageways and loop-holes is formed by the whole working-class area with all its basements, attics and living quarters: in this unassailable fortress every ground-floor window is an embrasure, every attic a battery and observation post. Every worker’s bed is a litter which an insurgent can count on in the event of being wounded. It is only this that explains the utterly disproportionate government losses, whereas the workers in Barmbeck could count scarcely a dozen wounded and between two and five killed.

The troops were forced to advance along open streets. The workers joined battle from their homes. All attempts by the regular forces to take Barmbeck on Tuesday were thwarted by this same straggling, invisible, elusive formation of rifles which could coolly pick its targets from somewhere at a first floor window while down below the helplessly exposed crowd of police literally showered the empty barricades with fire.

Anticipating an armoured assault Kb. contrived to blow up a concrete bridge, considered to be there for ever, with neither dynamite nor gunpowder. Workers felt out its vulnerable artery, the gas main, uncovered it and set it alight.

One of the vehicles blundered into a quiet deserted street. It stopped to put something right in the engine. A barricade sprouted in front of it. It turned round — the fallen crowns of sawndown trees were already lying criss-crossed on the roadway.

Vehicle no. M-14 steals forward cautiously underneath the railway bridge. In it are the driver and five Sipos. From behind a pub or round a corner, it is not known from where, but close by, a shot and then another. The driver is killed and a policeman too. The vehicle is torn to shreds and the debris scattered about by Young Communists.

Veritable pitched battles continued all day Tuesday. The first heavy assaults can be placed at about eleven o’ clock. The hardest fought of all were around the Von-Essen Strasse police station and along the whole line of barricades facing the railway embankment from both sides. The police quickly win the railway station. Their detachments run along the track trying to pick off the fighters from above. They are quietly drawn past the first two ambushes. Over the third span of the viaduct a deadly volley breaks out. They are firing not only from cover but from all the neighbouring attics. Riflemen have been sprinkled across the rooftops, keeping whole streets, the main intersections and squares under fire.

Below, an earthwork and a barricade. It has held now for several hours. A Sipo detachment moves against it even more savagely. The position becomes untenable. But from upstairs the cry: ‘Die Barrikade frei’ (Clear the barricades). The people don’t realise what’s going on. A marksman goes down to them, a worker of only about twenty-three, apparently wounded as his shoulder is bleeding — and his neck and waist. He gives the order to clear the barricade because the squad ensconced on the roof is afraid of hitting its own side. The worker disappears into a driveway and a few minutes later fire from the roof forces the police to retreat.

Another barricade that put up stubborn resistance for hours. A quartet of lone marksmen come downstairs from an attic. From their observation turret they had already spotted an armoured car approaching from far away and decided that it would be more convenient to greet it downstairs. With a happy shot one of them manages to pierce the radiator, paralysing the vehicle. The riflemen return once more to their pigeon loft.

Meanwhile the battles at the railway station are flaring up even more. The workers not only succeed in dislodging several White columns one after the other from the embankment but attempt to go over to the offensive themselves. But the open space in front of the viaduct is under bombardment from armoured cars. It is impossible to pass. No matter, the workers confront the fire under cover of huge beams taken from a nearby timber yard. A whole forest of masts gets up and moves forward to form a perfect blockhouse from which the riflemen continue their steady methodical work.

At this point the first massed attack is unleashed below. Two armoured cars cover six lorries that toss a whole host of Greens on to the road. This unit succeeds in cutting off comrade K. from Kb. and his men moving up from the other side of the viaduct. Not only that. Kb., who has left his soldiers some two hundred metres behind, is captured. He is searched and locked up in the railway building. If only the police had known that in the figure of this puny man with the inoffensive eyes of a young teacher who might be rash enough to go out for a stroll among the barricades, they held in their hands the heart of Barmbeck in revolt. Sitting nice and quietly by a window Kb. conducted a general review of the enemy’s forces. He watched exhorted mobs of police go past, urged on by the few courageous officers. Those hapless hirelings cheering themselves on with shots and cries, throwing themselves on their bellies every four paces, making desperate gestures towards a phlegmatic armoured car standing several metres behind its ‘vanguard’. From that same window Kb. could also observe the cool self-possession of several workers, especially little D. whose handiwork he could tell from the terrified faces of the orderlies coming out of the fire eight times in a row with heavily swaying stretchers. Finally to the sound of convulsed shouts and firing the last platoon of Greens disappeared down the empty streets of the insurgent quarter strange, absolutely empty streets, devoid of any sign of life as if abandoned by occupants and defenders. The waiting lasts for four endless agonising hours. At about five in the afternoon the wave of troops and police rolls back noisily. Their losses are enormous.

Alas, the staff centre that was to have directed the Rising in Barmbeck itself (led by three communist intellectuals, city councillors) is absent. For two days no one can find them anywhere. The battles are directed by Kb., C. and of course T. who set himself up with his wireless equipment right beneath the open sky in one of the public parks.

At about six o’clock in the evening Barmbeck is still standing, deafened by the stillness — a respite. Kb. finds his way to a friendly pub where D., the little marksman, is by now lying on a settee being fed with hot coffee. W., and that splendid marksman C. come here for a breather too. And that impetuous K. is as warm and jolly as if he has just been playing skittles in a pleasant after-dinner break or has just completed one of his twenty-mile strolls dragging a querulous exhausted wife along behind him; he chooses this spot to give instructions to his workers’ hundreds.

To sum up: all that was courageous in the Barmbeck pocket came here to shake hands, wash the blood off and decide: what now? What does this stillness mean, broken only occasionally by the clatter of a sash out of which a white flag is flung into the street — the appeal of someone wounded or dying?

Meanwhile silent Barmbeck, with twilight descending on it like a foggy sheet on to the stretchers formed by the maimed streets, is ever so quietly split into two halves. Fifteen hundred troops separate North from South Barmbeck. The strong points, at Wagnerstrasse, police station 46, Friedrichstrasse station and Pfenningsbusch, silently stretch out their arms to each other in the darkness like a police cordon forcing back some innocuous street demonstration.

All of a sudden the ring snaps shut — a muscular elastic ring in which the bulky forms of armoured cars once again drawn up hard against the barricades are set like dull stones in a bracelet. A solid lump rolls up into Barmbeck’s throat. True, our posts are still in place. But time is against them. The enemy is gaining with every drop of darkness that night is forcing between the quarter’s fiercely locked teeth.

In the end the Whites are just as invisible, and therefore invulnerable, as the insurrectionaries. And there are more of them.

Along either side of one of the streets there creeps a double file of patrols. At some gateway the officer-in-charge grabs some innocently intellectual-looking man and jabs a revolver into his ribs. He does not see a second man who, with a rifle in his hands, has recoiled back into the dark and is as motionless as a stone. For the second time that day the Landsknechte (mercenaries) have caught hold of the mainspring of raging Barmbeck and then let it slip through their fingers. An hour and a half later Kb. was giving the order to his riflemen to melt away, disappear from Barmbeck, now encircled, half-strangled and half-inundated with torrents of unseen enemies.

Each cleared his own line of retreat independently; one took that mountain path across the rocky ridges of rooftops and over the gulleys in those man-made urban Alps. Not one put a foot wrong, not one was caught.

On the following morning all thirty-five had already met again in North Barmbeck and decided to dig in on the broad semicircle of the railway embankment. Again for a period of several long hours, battles, frenzied shooting, obstacles across the adjoining streets, barricades and many, many fallen enemy. Fifty fresh rifles enter service — alas, toy ones taken from a local club: and in the face of this Rising pressed up against the embankment on either flank, three defeated assaults, three hound-packs forced to depart with shattered skulls: that day cost the Reds four men. Four excellent comrades: and old Lewien paid for it in excruciatingly painful blood. The baby’s rattles, the sportsmen’s rifles from the club, were found in his garden. Old Mrs. Lewien, living in her little house with its antiquated chests-of-drawers, cat, white goat, portrait of Liebknecht the elder and the almost hundred-year-old tradition of courageous atheism and the old party of the days of the Anti-Socialist Law, was first given back the old man’s blood-stained overcoat and then a completely bloodless body. His elder son, a philistine and SPDer arrived to burrow through the boxes, sell off the chattels and demand a signature on some papers from old Mrs. Lewien. But she can recall one thing only: the old man standing alone on a lorry in a crowd of Greens and that he was pale.

Here on the evening of the 24th the comrades learnt almost simultaneously of the fall of Schiffbek and the calm reigning in the rest of Germany.

That Wednesday, the 24th, having received no news of the start of the German revolution the leading group was compelled to sound the retreat. Not because the workers had been smashed but what was the point of pursuing the struggle in Hamburg alone, of flaring up in isolation against a backcloth of general collapse?!

It was not quite so easy to order the retreat in a city drunk with victory, where the defence is ready at any moment to go over to the offensive and hundreds of barricades and tens of thousands of workers are preparing for an all-out assault and the terrible closing act of civil war — the triumphant seizure of power. The first courier who brought to the barricades the order to retreat was knocked off his feet with a furious punch. He was an honest old worker who, together with his family had maintained the dangerous courier service throughout the Rising. When he thought of that terrible punch so unjustly received from his comrades Comrade P. almost did himself in, becoming as bloodshot as that battered cheek of his. In just the same way all working-class Hamburg clutched its jaw and turned blind with the pain when it received the order to liquidate the Rising. You had to enjoy the confidence of the masses such as T. did having grown up with his organisations and being so inextricably linked to their proletarian core that he could make the abrupt swing of helm to demobilisation with impunity.

All right, they retreated. Disappointed and grumbling, parting for the last time yet having repulsed the enemy from their barricades for many hours. Taking advantage of the confusion the riflemen abandoned the earthworks, barricades and sentry posts without a sound. They went off with their weapons taking with them the dead and wounded, covering up all traces left behind them, and gradually scattered out into the now silent suburbs. This planned retreat was carried out under the cover of marksmen dispersed on the roofs. None of them left his aerial barricade until five floors below the last fighter had left his trench and the last casualty, supported under the arms by his comrades, had hidden himself behind the gateway of a safe house. They held on all day, all the while holding down the Whites, running across from one zone to another, along slippery cornices hanging over ravines, past black staircases gaping like trenches, past wells and dormer windows through which the police ever more insistently surged upwards as they finally scented emptiness and defeat behind the unmanned hushed barricades. The struggle had turned into a chase. The whole population concealed and saved the heroic rearguard of the Hamburg October, those wounded, blackened hounded loners still firing somewhere over the city and then suddenly digging themselves into some unknown working-class family; dressed in rags, with bloodied hands, parched black mouths and a pack of huntsmen careering, roaring and swearing past the scarcely slammed door.

One of the last to retreat was the old party comrade W. who, tottering with fatigue and drunk with a desire to lie down and sleep, could no longer cling to a slippery tile or the corner of a sharp chimney. At last when down below an exit to freedom had opened up before him in the shadow of some murky gateway, he stopped again and unslung his rifle to let off his last cartridges with a malicious glee. The whole corner on which he was leaning had been lacerated with bullets. By sheer chance not one of them had grazed his head, now against the stonework a shadow wreathed with scratches and holes. They only just managed to get him away. Around his neck over an unbuttoned shirt and a shaggy sweaty chest a dazzlingly smart tie was fastened.

“What’s this Schlips (tie) on for, old chap?”

“Ich wollte festlich sterben.” (I wanted to die properly.)


Lying a little way out of Hamburg where a dreary line of telegraph poles marches off in the direction of flat, denuded sandy Prussia is a small working-class town by the name of Schiffbek. It ranges out between the Bille brook, murky and smooth as tinplate, and hills on which grow sparse trees that have run bare-headed and tousled into the wind and also assorted little two-storey houses of a workers’ settlement.

In the centre the evangelical church stands empty like a rusty umbrella stuck into the ground to dry out after the rain and forgotten there for ever. Not believing in God the cosmopolitan population of this working-class town does not visit it. Today, after the battles, it stands there with a black eye, without window-panes or doors — a priest who has strayed and ended up in someone else’s fight.

A large chemical factory stands on a little island on the far side of the Bille: cold, venomous and full of crystals that are deposited into the icy black water, naphthaline and green poisons that seem to cover the river-bed with a film of fresh vitriolic moss. Some thousand workers are employed there.

Inside the kilns that never cool off fire that is as dense as the molten planets is poured out. It is observed through tiny windows. Sometimes the white heat is coated with a light coaly haze but more often it is as white and still as blindness. Naked to the waist, workers charge away from the blazing kilns out into the frost, snow or rain to escape an atmosphere in which the one-time gigantic mare’s-tails and warm swamps that are now stacked in the corners as heaps of coal might have grown and revelled.

Along either side of a narrow stone corridor lies a steammill and a huge iron-rolling works. On Christmas Eve its chimney, higher than all the others, is like a sullen smoker left suddenly without tobacco.

‘Tin Shacks’ are spread out along the fringe of the now frozen white waste patches. This works has one long legless body pressing its belly against the ground and seven equally tall chimneys set in a row like minarets from which every morning a shrill muezzin of labour sounds.

Work at this factory is extremely damaging to the lungs. The toughest cannot stand more than four years of it. You have to be like S., a hero of the Hamburg Rising, to emerge unharmed after working several years in the inferno. But then S. is a giant whose build all Schiffbek is proud of.

Ask any little urchin and he will tell you that S. can lift on his shoulder six men clinging to an iron crowbar, that his hands are much bigger and can hold much more than the purses that the good housewives of Schiffbek take to market and that in the morning when he swings his extraordinary legs out of bed the whole tenement creaks and shakes so much that neighbours without watches know it is time to wake their husbands for work. So then as we have said, since S. is such a colossus, a bold spirit, a Bolshevik and generally devilish the ‘Tin Shacks’ have not done him too much harm. But little C. came out of them with a leg seared to the bone; K.with red spittle wrapped up in his dirty handkerchief.

Further up the Bille stand the smoky towers of Jute, one of Hamburg’s largest manufacturing plants. It is predominantly women who work here; poorly remunerated and poorly organised, for whom the party has year after year conducted a bitter struggle against the Menshevik trade unions, the women’ s remarkably clamorous, inflammable but easily intimidated inertness, the employer and the priest.

The Jute women doggedly resisted any stable organisation. Where possible they would moan about their wages and after the first few days of a strike would go whining to make peace with the manager, first smashing the office windows and then informing on the instigators. However, the factory, in the course of its normal capitalist business, is itself combing out of this tangled, unexacting, conveniently exploitable, female mass the first strands of a strong proletarian solidarity. Amenable as the women might have been their wages still slipped down and down. First one department and then another was subjected to the frantic inflationary race of prices and wages. Yet within the bounds of their own homes, their own housekeeping and their own factory the women remain as united as they are indifferent to political movements that go beyond those bounds. They may not take any notice of a General Strike but they will never let their workmates down in the next section. Thus, for over a year now, the basically peaceable Jute has, thank goodness, worked no more than three days out of six: the rest of the time the factory is out in the street supporting the section on strike at the particular time.

“O, ha!” (that is a pet expression of every true Hamburger).

“O, ha!” say the workers who have been conducting propaganda at the Jute factory for months and years, “hunger is making good communists of them”.

Here is one of the astonishing women to have come out of the Jute. Let’s call her Elfriede and say that she is the daughter of a Schiffbek night-watchman. Father was well-known about the town as an orthodox Menshevik and the owner of a superb carbine with which he maintained order and tranquillity in the derelict areas and buildings in his care called Hundebuden (dog-kennels) by the workers. And so it was.

But if the watchman faithfully upheld the law of private property with his carbine then Elfriede in every way overturned and trampled down those sacred bastions with her amazing beauty.

Elfriede was not only a perfect communist, an excellent workmate and a heroic girl who fought at the barricades, raising Schiffbek’s entire female population its feet to set up field kitchens and herself taking out under fire hot coffee and fresh cartridges fastened around her slim waist re, the marksmen in the trenches; with her own hands she put her old man under lock and key adding his old-fashioned rifle to the party’s scanty war material and was finally caught by the police in the heat of her criminal activity, namely while cleaning potatoes for the insurgents with her sleeves rolled up amid piles of fresh peelings; not only was she a courageous active woman for ever dedicated to the party but also perhaps one of the first examples of a new brave type so unsuccessfully faked in the pages of the neo-proletarian novel and the homilies of armchair revolutionaries.

There came with her into the poverty-stricken district of Schiffbek the spirit of destruction and liberty. Elfriede refused to become anyone’s wife. Her name evoked the timid respect and furious hatred of legal wives whose husbands she would take away for a day, a year or for life, of fathers and lovers.

She would conquer whomever she chose, make love for as long as there were no lies in that loving and then haughtily return her captive to freedom. But she asked no one for a name, a shield or aid for herself or her child. Never, neither in weakness nor in sickness, did she seek support in the law that all her life she had despised.

From the bench she went to jail.

But first a scene, an astonishing scene that actually took place in a corridor of the Hamburg City Hall from whose balcony Doctor Laufenberg was carefully thrown in 1918 and where arrested communists were brought on 23 October.

On that dreadful day there stood in the forecourt of Schiffbek police station in rows of three, four or five, lorries loaded with captured workers lying on their backs, heaped on top of each other.

The rebels! They had fought in open battle according to all the rules of honest warfare, pitting life against life with an adversary a hundred times stronger, yet still sparing prisoners and letting the wounded go. After the defeat they were of course treated like hunted ruffians, renegades standing outside the law. The police pounded their feet on those rows of bloody, gasping bodies heaped upon each other. Lying men crushed by their comrades on top lay underneath with faces squashed against the coal-smeared boards while above the Wachtmeister (sergeants) of the Reichswehr tugged hair out and with their rifle-butts cracked the napes of the immobilised men who then lost consciousness.

Three men were overwhelmed there. S., that oak among men, a superman in his astounding physical strength, spewed blood and lost his senses. K. was dying and agile little L. beneath his pacifier’s boot was ready to leap out of his crushed existence just as an eye slips from its socket full of fire and tears. About all this later: I don’t wish to start on Schiffbek with the phase of police atrocities. They are merely a bloody and dirty epilogue to three days of the Rising that cannot be stamped out by a soldier’s boot from the history of a new working-class humanity. For indeed how unattainable is the shining peak on which stands the struggle of Hamburg labour above the bloody filth of police station floors, the vile courtroom offices where the proceedings were written out and torn up, torn up and re-written, the reeking stifling lavatories of that now illustrious City Hall where the arrested were forced to wash and even take a shower so that members of the city government, and Messrs. socialist deputies who had come to be convinced of the police’s kind and humane treatment of its prisoners-of-war, did not become queasy at the sight of the blood smeared everywhere or the smell of the clothes of an adolescent member of the Hamburg Young Communists, beaten until he had lost control of his physiological functions.

So it was that in that long white corridor where the drunken soldiery drove the living piece of revolution that had fallen back through the lines into its hands, men cowered by the walls under the lash and it smelt of rubber and blood, in that corridor Elfriede who had so zealously and laboriously upheld her lonely dignified life free from the prop of any official morality, yet as pure and as straight as an arrow, in that corridor she was swamped with the foulest, filthiest abuse and mockery.

Every quarter of an hour a new group of Reichswehr burst into the hall, picked up off the floor those who had already collapsed, beat up again those who had already been beaten up, revived those who had fainted so as to knock them down again and then each of those gangs started once again on her standing as if naked among wild beasts.

“Communist slut,” they shouted. “Whore,” they shouted.

“You’re not a German woman but an animal,” they shouted.

And in that ghastly interminable torture-chamber that lasted a day, a night and another day, this girl recalled: yes, there had been a great German woman, as great as a marble statue, and nothing since her ghastly death had been quite so fine and wise in the German revolution.

And what’s more she had left behind a small book of letters. A white cover with red lettering. Letters from prison.

Rosa Luxemburg.

Elfriede stood in that satanic corridor and cried out about Rosa Luxemburg until she was heard. When a girl arms herself with Rosa’s name she is as powerful and as dangerous as an armed man — she is a warrior and no one will dare touch her.

It is impossible to pick up what she said and how or what her words were.

But some N.C.O. made an apology.

One of the gangs went off with tails between their legs saying that ‘they hadn’t known’. Perhaps this interval was used to get one of the injured men away from the soldiers and drag him out of the serum by the arm.

That is the tale of Elfriede from Schiffbek.


1. A Pair

A couple. In Schiffbek they tell how there lived this pair, husband and wife, both fine old communists. Several years ago they separated, led independent lives with new families and did not meet each other. A superb marksman, he was fighting in October in one of the trenches that intersected the narrow bare little streets. It so happened that his former wife was standing there fighting next to him. As before — in the days of the Spartacus Rising and the Kapp putsch. The worker was caught and his wife gave herself up the next day. And so that family of fighters re-united quite naturally at the first shot, under fire. They will stand trial together.

2. A Private House and the Rising

She was a short-sighted, normal, chaste Catholic nurse with poor eyesight. Today after the war he is a communist. A remarkable resourceful, earnest quick worker. He plugged into the party like those tiny household batteries that can give light, turn a roller to sharpen knives or can, in eights, drive a model railway and yet which remain but miniatures or an enormous miracle of energy, the motor of a whole era of machines but on a minuscule scale. When necessary the little battery can emit real burning sparks bigger than itself.

This practical-minded highly-skilled worker was struck down with a rather special and rare illness that takes one in ten thousand and is thus incurable: he was struck with a great and tormenting love for the devout, bony gawky nurse.

As is normal in such cases it set in quite mutually and in one minute they were transfixed.

They got married, vaulting over his politics and her catechism and even forgot about them for a while. Then, comrade L., who never flagged and never moved away from the party, started to save money to build his own little house on the outskirts of the outskirts, beyond the oasis of little white houses with red roofs that members of the local authority, five old Mensheviks, had donated themselves out of official funds. All in one spot, just like one big family.

The wind gusts around them and the population passing by spies. Anyway these people are living well and contentedly.

L. worked; he worked overtime and nights and on his days off he would rush down to the site to erect his house with great patience and toil: brick by brick, chip by chip, tile by tile.

The first baby came along and the second one too. The party faded into a mist and became a theoretical outlook on life, an idea locked away in an unoccupied corner.

Sometimes, in moments of domestic repose L. could hear its monotonous tread and feel it standing and listening at the door of his conscience.

The short-sighted industrious wife finally could start living in her own home, to sew by her own brightly scrubbed fireplace, sleep in her own bed, rear children, wash down the stove’s Dutch tilework, wash the little piglets and wash the gleaming floors. On Sundays L. would now read aloud some romance of court life about the objectionably pampered child of a count — with a wedding at the end.

On the morning of 23 October L. had just stuck the pig for Christmas. The blood had already been drained off into a barrel for the black pudding. At that moment the shooting started. In spite of the house he had put up with his own hands and pasted together with the sweat of his brow, in spite of that extraordinary love for his wife, the communist took his rifle and went. And then what happened?

He was captured, beaten up and released. A trial in a few days’ time. So what then? Stay at home or flee?

That same powerful revolutionary instinct that had previously driven L. to the barricades now drove this well-set up, bourgeoisified, domesticated German worker out into the streets amidst the cross-currents of bullets whizzing past the corners of the workers’ tenements and the wretched covers; to confront the two thousand regular troops who stormed this hornet’s nest to take it empty. Ruthless class instinct now commanded: do not leave the party any more, do not dare desert, you must go underground and go on with the work.

But on the day following his flight the house and the belongings, even Lumpi the guard dog, will be confiscated by the government. The wife, two children and the newly-born third will find themselves turned out into the street. Besides, for some reason his wife is going blind and has started to pray often and at length.

Nevertheless one night they arrived at C.’s — she without hat or glasses — and recounted their whole life to the comrade, including that wonderful first look that had at one time decided their fate.

The next day L. made off.

3. The Eighteenth Century, the Joy of Living and the Rising

Actually this portrait does not concern the history of the Rising itself. But there is invariably in every gallery as a matter of course ‘Das Bildnis eines Unbekannten’ (the portrait of an unknown man) and such an anonymous sketch can often tell more about the inimitable peculiarities of its period than all the signed canvasses.

We have to draw a house, a sunken ship slowly settling down somewhere on the seabed, in a dark side-street where from time to time it is flooded with light from the white eyes of a motor car drifting past. The lamp over the gate radiates a light resembling the glow of a rotting tree.

A stinking gateway and windows close to the ground for ever eavesdropping on each other.

The bedroom, as cold as the North Pole with its numbed window-panes, cupboard and gaping wash-basin, warms itself on a hot-water bottle stuffed under an icy feather-bed. In the diningroom — which is also the sitting-room and workshop — is the dense but rapidly escaping warmth of an iron stove; on the lamp a gawdy silk shade looking like some cheap tart’s petticoat; in the kitchen a reeking sink, gas and the heavy smell of dampness. The whole setting testifies to the indubitable prosperity of an aristocratic worker: it belongs to comrade K., an artist in wood. He is employed in one of the biggest furniture factories that make and imitate antique pieces. His speciality is the eighteenth century which, without ever having read anything about art, he feels to the tips of his fingers. With his eyes shut the master can impeccably saw out the cherry-coloured veneer inlaid with metal and tortoise-shell and the furniture whose effete intricate gently-curving contours emerge from a deal board, a heavy moist piece of wood that has fallen into these amazingly creative hands, as effortlessly as if they had come from the workshop of the celebrated Boulle. In each of the old-fashioned writing desks at which, presumably, our grandmothers wrote their love letters, and in each of the card-tables on which the Werthers broke their chalk scribbling out the names of their beloveds after having placed a candle beside the weighty pistols, K., the craftsman, fits, for the sake of style, secret drawers, little recesses and hidden springs that, if accidentally pressed, deliver into the hands of the admirable bourgeois a couple of yellowing papers, a bunch of dried forget-me-nets and that most rare aroma of someone else’s secret. All these items have been gleaned by that same craftsman K. with enormous taste and sense of proportion.

Communism has for him been tucked away like a casket full of ideas, words and generalities wholly inapplicable to practical life that form the most priceless and intimate thing in life — political style.

Need it be said that in the Rising K. took no active part unless of course you count the broad hospitality he extended to comrades following the battles.

K. is an Epicurcan. A true Renaissance man in his effervescent irrepressible love of life, its pleasures and its palpably warm human beauty, his sense of which is as infallible as his cabinet-maker’s skill. K. believes that the very process of life with all its physiological and profoundly mundane functions will some day become the basis for the greatest and truest beauty. This social aesthetic gives him an affinity with the best things that Edgar Allan Poe wrote about — the as yet non-existent gardens and palaces to be inhabited by wise men. K. populates them with workers.

‘If the kingdom of the future were suddenly to arrive’ (again a purely German concept: only a utopian who does not believe in his day-dream could express himself that way) he would fashion wonderful shelves, beds, tables and chairs for the workers palaces. This is his ideal communist ‘casket’.

But now the practice. Why did he not join the fight in October? Why does he smile when you talk about strikes and distributing leaflets, Given all this deliberate passivity and indisputable desertion from the field of civil war where does that provocative arrogance and manner of a victor over the bourgeoisie come from! Why in the end did this man, who was created for great spiritual and physical pleasures and who thought communism the only road by which he and his class could attain such pleasures, not lift a single finger or once risk his neck during the Rising?

It turns out that he is thieving and plundering his bourgeois. He is stealing almost openly, stacking away sums large by the standards of cottage industry, putting unimaginable profits into his pocket while looking provocatively into his boss’s eye and keeping a watch on the cowardly accomplices who assist him. Then after a week of the most arduous labour, working a ten-hour day with continuous strain, come several bottles of excellent beer, his little wife Eisa in her black silk underwear and, from out of the stinking corner where the Roederer’s cork hits the low ceiling like a tall man who has wandered in and banged himself against the bank of this pit, through the hate of a strong cigar, through the fog of perspiring, sultry dampness, through the golden illusions bursting in tiny bubbles on the surface of the earthenware mug in which centenarian grape fizzes, comrade K., with the smirk of a conquerer, contemplates the bourgeoisie he has deceived, deceived so cunningly and boldly.

Those are his finest hours.

The old songs of Hamburg are older and more rollicking than ours. There is one about a craftsman’s daughter who loved three boisterous apprentices thrown out by her father, another about sea-horses and women, about brawls and dockside pubs. He sings them marvellously.

How do you tell K. that for the crumbs the boss permits his irreplaceable craftsman to snatch off his plentiful table, the drop of stolen wine and those few hours’ blessed oblivion, he is as much giving his enemy the marrow of his bone, his life and the mysterious trembling fibres of the brain that we call talent as any labourer gives his sweat, muscle and bones?

About Schiffbek Again

Schiffbek’s police station, council offices, post office and in general all the institutions and public buildings that personify state power in this small working-class town with its cosmopolitan population were seized by the communists at dawn on 23 October with the aid of one carbine and one hunting knife with a serrated blade and a horn handle.

As in the rest of Hamburg, Schiffbek police station, packed as it was with armed Sipos, was taken by surprise with bare hands, quickly and without a sound. At the head of the whole Rising and of the military organisation that worked out and implemented its plan was S. A giant and a brave man, one of those truly revolutionary workers of whom modern Germany can be proud. Perhaps it was that very physical strength and an awareness that with one movement of his metallic muscles he could crush any adversary that had developed in him that sense of caution so valuable to a leader and an ability to calculate the precise effect of every discharge of force. He could come down like a steam-hammer on an anvil carefully splitting a nutshell without damaging the kernel — and a minute later beat out an iron bar.

His armed squad, formed of picked members of the local organisation, stood and fought just as S. himself would fight: when surrounded on all sides by an invading mob and pinned against a wall he would knock those small fry off their feet one by one without checking the incredible reach and power of his hammer-fists.

Having occupied the police station the Schiffbek insurgents did not remain there but, seizing sixteen rifles and as many revolvers, left the building which could have become the same trap for them as it had been for the police they had just seized and disarmed.

One good marksman, by concealing himself behind the shrubs, garden sheds and corners of the workers’ barracks scattered along the length of the hills on the left-hand side of the central highway linking Schiffbek with Hamburg, could and did keep the road, bridge and railway embankment under fire and hold at a respectable distance an enemy ten, a hundred, and finally, during the last assaults of the morning of the 26th, a thousand times stronger.

A marksman, or, as they are called here, Scharfeschütze, would, by remaining secure behind his cover and firing at long intervals, every five, ten or fifteen minutes, attempt to pick off at least one, and often two men with a single bullet. To these isolated and always lethal shots the police replied by sweeping whole blocks with drum-fire from their machine-guns — they mowed down a multitude of women and children that had accidentally fallen within the sights of their impotent rage. Nevertheless, after a brief lull, a cold, calculated sharp-eyed shot again rang out, catching the driver of an armoured car who had just peeped out from under the steel hatch, removed a fur mitten and lit up a cigarette with relief, a Green who had leapt out from round a corner and a Reichswehr soldier squatting behind a letter box who had just stopped in the middle of the street a tram conductor’s wife, whose face and loaf tucked under her kerchief had seemed to him suspicious.

Reichswehr soldiers are recruited from among clumsy country lads. They are the younger sons of rich peasants, a generation that matured after the war and revolution. In the countryside they are a burden on their fathers; greedy, lazy, pampered farmhands who will not put sufficient horsepower into the land as they cannot count upon an inheritance in the future. Such lads, political quadrupeds, readily become Landsknechte and look upon civil war as a pogrom in the course of which they stand to gain much with little risk. But instead of unarmed women and children terrorised in bread queues and that cowardly city rabble of whom back at home the priest with his plump chin resting on his white collar would tell with such passion, the well-fed little peasants stumbled against workers’ hundreds and the cold-blooded, flawless fire of old soldiers who had come out of the world war with every badge of distinction for accurate marksmanship and sapper work under enemy machine-gun fire.

The roles have been reversed. In Germany the revolution draws upon cadres of old soldiers who defend their barricades according to all the rules of military science while the government has numerous but totally inexperienced and untempered units, cowardly in battle though brutal when facing a captive with his hands tied behind his back. It was not by chance that one of the officers found it necessary to drive his detachment of raw recruits forward into the attack revolver in hand just to smoke out a lone rifleman ensconced in the attic of his house who was faultlessly picking off one soldier after another; as he urged his cannon fodder on this lieutenant swore aloud before the whole town:

“You scum of the earth, you cowards …With twenty of them (a motion towards the dormer window) I could sort out thousands like you!”

But even without the officer’s assistance the Schiffbek workers, under the command of their S. and his Chief of Operations and Chief of Staff, the incomparable Fritz, resisted the onslaught of the regular troops. Adapting themselves to the conditions of the locality they would constantly switch their tactics. Where hills dominated the town or where the houses stood like eases amid open wastes they split their forces into small combat formations, each of which would defend itself at its own risk and peril, advance, take cover and change from one ambush to another. But where empty white fields flowed between narrow banks of the town’s streets they relied upon the old and proven technique of street barricades, blocking the water-courses of the streets with firm dams and excavating earthworks so preventing armoured cars from breaking through to the central blocks.

At half past eleven the police, now in possession of the empty police station, opened their first offensives against Schiffbek. A detachment of fifty men advanced confidently along the main street; knocking down a few chance passers-by they moved up to a white building with a long stairway jutting out. Beautiful dark eyed Minna went past the soldiers showing her gleaming teeth and making a count of the invaders. They did not even notice the red badge on her ample bosom. Her headscarf tied at the back disappeared calmly down a side-street. A boy, a pupil at the town school, who had been running along beside her, turned round, hiccupped and sat down on the pavement. A bullet had struck him between the eyebrows.

In the insurgents’ camp there was still the deepest silence until, at a distance of only twenty paces, several shots knocked the sergeant-major and half the soldiers out of the invading detachment.

An hour later, police now numbering some two hundred, moved in not just along one line but from several angles simultaneously. The workers drove them back from their barricades and earthworks; from all the covers scattered along the hills they plastered the invaders with volley-fire. Fritz, the marksman, shot at the police from round the corner of his own tenement, surrounded by women holding the supplies of cartridges in torn aprons. A classic figure: a large-peaked cloth cap tied down with a scarf under the chin, a jacket in tatters and beneath it a heavy grey docker’s jersey. His hair, which to this day that beautiful Minna cannot recall without laughter, is like a bandit’s: after five minutes’ wait one, just one shot. With it Fritz had picked off four of them.

It should be said that Schiffbek is rich in, and renowned for, its Fritzes. A second one directed the defence of the barricades and earthworks. Beside S. he is almost short. But while S. had grown haphazardly, branching out on all sides with a good-natured, powerful voluble crown right up in the sky, Fritz is a squat shrub firmly gripping the earth somewhere between the stones under a strong sea breeze. Heels together, a drum-like chest with his hands in pockets and one shoulder a little bit forward, the shoulder of a trained boxer and athlete at that. A whistle, insolent jibes and the ability to make a woman or a policeman blush equally — by looking them up and down. In addition an audacity that had won him the untranslatable nickname of Didlein–a nickname both contemptuous and flattering that means chap, rascal, smart alec, bold spirit, liar, gunman, rogue and pastry-cook — in fact a generally good fellow. In peaceful times this Fritz had rather shocked the sedate party functionaries with his sharp dockside smell and provocative unruly spirit but in the days of battle he worked miracle after miracle. He would rush from window to window, urge on, hold back, switch forces, swear and give commands as the ganglion between S.’s calm strength and all the roving knots of insurrecrionaries.

At half past one the government crept towards Schiffbek with five hundred men plus a squadron of armoured cars. The fray lasted until six o’clock that evening. Two first-rate marksmen may well be able to stand fast for a long while but in the end courage and tenacity have their limits. In order to win time the combatants very quietly left the earthworks, dived through the nearest gateway and an hour and a half later the steel noses of their rifles were poking over the edge of another barricade, successively joining battle in the most hard-pressed areas.

Meanwhile the bewildered enemy was still flooding the now silent ambush with fire. From time to time the heat subsided; the blind barrage would break off and a scout crawl along the pavement on all fours. But then, from somewhere in a nearby attic a solitary shot quacks out and the bombardment~is resumed with renewed force against the empty pit full of cartridge-cases, debris and charred soil. In the end the lieutenant seizing his revolver with a heroic flourish led forth his musketeers into the assault. Shooting blindly into the air and uttering war cries they tumbled into the empty ditch.

Dusk was falling. Sunset like a sentry sloped its long pointed bayonet-like shadows across all the streets. A poster had already appeared on Schiffbek’s hoardings proclaiming a general strike and greeting the Soviet government. The thirty-five communists, beset by thousands of soldiers, were sure that all Germany was rising behind them. However, even without appeals the whole population supported the communists. Eight thousand people turned out on to the streets and if they did not take part in the struggle it was simply due to the total lack of weapons.

But the sacred intelligentsia! It is worth noting that in little Schiffbek, just as it used to be in Russia and everywhere else where the social revolution ultimately takes up arms, the intellectuals fire alongside the police and soldiers. Not a professor — for what professors are there in Schiffbek! — nor a teacher, — the teachers are well-meaning though timid — nor even a midwife — in Schiffbek women bear their own children without a hint of medical aid — but only an aged school janitor to make a stand for the fruits of European enlightenment. Left alone in his deserted premises, the wretched sixty-year-old, his head sated with schoolroom wisdom, a worker who had learnt to despise corns, the stench of poverty and muscular young ignorance as deeply as he himself was despised by the implacable blackboards, teachers’ uniforms and plaster sages on the bookcase in the headmaster’s study, this old janitor grabbed his pistol and decided to fire upon his own class, the pupils who were studying street disorder instead of penmanship and the Holy Writ.

A knock outside the door. The janitor hid. They knocked once more and then the gates left their hinges beneath S.’s angry shoulder. Then, raising onearm as on the Schiller memorial,looking comical and menacing with his hair dishevelled, the old man fired at the worker’s broad chest and missed. Here the majestic posture ended. The janitor made for the stairs with S. after him. S. climbed up despite the drawn pistol and bellowed across the entire establishment:

“Crazy old Karnikel (bunny). You just empty the chamberpots to support their learning!”

“What use are you to anyone!!” and he removed the revolver from Uncle Paulus.

The old man wept most bitterly, for the years in which he had rubbed the white algebra and time-charts off the blackboards had made a true intellectual of him: the desperate frantic martyrdom and then the impotent tears proved it.

S. clipped him one round the head and let him off. This was the situation: S., laughing and swearing dreadfully, holding the old man and his unfortunate weapon in one hand while he wiped the soot off his face that had been scorched by the shot. Amid tears Paulchen was forced to tear his old and desecrated party card to shreds.

All around: urchins, shooting, death and laughter.

By evening the battles had abated. The workers were forced to retreat — to this day S. will talk about this with utter shame and child-like vexation — to retreat five hundred paces from their old positions. That was on the Hamburg flank. But in the rear troops had managed to penetrate as far as the main square where wealthy residents showered them with sausages, margarine and congratulations. The encirclement closed in threatening to become a stranglehold. A squad of insurgents coming to the rescue from shattered Barmbeck could not break through the police blockade. By now vehicles of the military command were racing through the streets of Hamburg: General Staff officers rushed to inspect the network of barricades and found their positioning to be superb.

At daybreak workers were again lying in the trenches, attics and behind every possible cover. But the enemy whose three assaults had been smashed the day before, did not show himself. Hooters started wailing continuously and pointlessly from a few factories. Patrols paced up and down at the end of every side-street emptying into the fields relieving each other regularly. They were standing guard over the barricades from afar as if over a captive prisoner. Then, a menacing stillness. At first they were heartened by it. Then perturbed. And then they sensed enormous danger creeping up on Schiffbek from those silent wastes and made ready to meet it.

Thirty-five against five thousand.

At about one o’clock a unit of four armoured cars and six lorries appeared from the direction of Horn dropping a large contingent of Sipos on the road. From Uhlenfeld in the north twenty-six lorry-loads of Greens. From the direction of Eimsbüttel, cavalry. An aeroplane came down very low and flew over Schiffbek raking its already bullet-riddled walls with a grey curtain of bullets.

Although beaten by the Allies the German Army goes gallantly to war against its own proletarians. But the example is evidently infectious for it is now the workers who sting the government forces. Cavalry, infantry, armoured cars, aircraft and, on the polluted little river Bille, a whole navy made up of five launches of river police while a handful of workers, scoffing at this technology and the bloated, rotten shell of that hired army living off the employers’ fat tips, continued to hold out until four o’clock in the afternoon. In the end, having thrown the troops back along sprawling unprotected fronts, beleaguered Schiffbek, driving before it crumpled up, broken columns of blue, green and other valiantly coloured soldiers, breaks through the ring of ambushes and emerges weapons in hand to freedom through that bloody breach. It’s funny to relate: three riflemen form the rearguard of this miniature workers’ army. They keep the ‘Naval Forces of the Republic’ at a respectable distance while S. and his men make their way into the country along the narrow gap between the river and the main highway.

Then the victors’ celebration. The pandemonium of denunciations, searches, brutalities, arrests and church services. All this goes on for nearly two months. Dozens of workers are set outside the law. Many are arrested and await trial. Their families continue to tuck themselves away in the dank workers’ barracks: one by one the insurgents’ wives are thrown out of the factories on to the streets. Now and then a fast-talking trade-union leader appears at their homes: swollen and yellow with iodine and his head swathed in white. He had been seized near the ‘Tin Shacks’ during the Rising and beaten to mincemeat by the police in error. Now he replaces knocked-out teeth, conducts espionage and operates as a go-between.

Hunger, snows, dirty icy beds, the rent, the caretaker shouting and winter, beating its white bitch rods on the road between your own little den that smells of gas, the lavatory and slushy filth, and the labour exchange. The exchange is a grey building standing to attention and saluting an open field. The back of this constable who has nodded off on duty is plastered with our proclamations.

From time to time the women who have been subjected to every kind of pressure and every kind of privation are confronted by a police search-party or a pencil-and-paper gendarme for questioning. And then all that helpless poverty bristles its spines and puts up the stiffest and most courageous resistance to both the civil and the military power as they rattle their ringing broadswords outside on the staircase slippery with frozen slops.

The wife of a Schiffbek insurgent presses her arms to her sides, her face red with anger, the stove or the wash-tub and with yelling at screaming children and the shaggy dog that is furiously barking under the sagging settee, raises her voice to a shrill, rasping pitch and pushes away the papers laid before her as if brushing aside the obstinate perspiring hair from her brow; she vehemently denies and dodges and will not put her name to anything anywhere. Her abuse flies irresistibly down on to the heads of the departing officialdom as if tipped out of a rubbish bin. These women, for whom there is nothing to eat and who tomorrow will be thrown out of their lairs, push the police around, contemptuously pillorying them with their caustic jeers.

On Christmas Eve they get together to sew dozens of dolls for the children of communists who have fled. C. fashions a dolls’ house out of old boxes pasting them over with newspaper and grubby kings and queens from long ago cast-off suits.

Hungry neighbours come round with presents — a bar of soap, a doll or a pair of warm stockings.

Finally, at night, a detachment of workers from Hamburg with a wheel-barrow of flour and margarine from American comrades. Fifty kilos of fat and twenty-five pounds of sugar for seventy families each numbering three to five mouths.

Hunger reaches its apogee several days before Christmas. Following an offer from a Dutch branch of Workers’ International Relief Schiffbek is to send fifty of its children to Holland to be bearded out with foreign comrades.

A knock at the door — some workers arrive with embarrassed faces; they look at nothing but the washing hanging out over the cold stove or the syphilitically green wall and ask about the weather, their health and this and that.

From the vacant-eyed mother it is ascertained: whom they should take, a boy or a girl and how old.’ A quarter of an hour to get ready. No luggage. A few minutes’ bitter howling on mother’s shaking knees. But the stockings are by now firmly laced up, all buttons properly fastened and mother combs her daughter’s tousled crop with brusque, peremptory movements that are at the same time dilatory and secretly drawn out. A quarter of an hour later the child is for ever ripped from its roots in routed Schiffbek.

Two mothers did not wish to give up their children.

One, burdened with four boys, two girls (her husband had been arrested and her factory had turned her out) and a window with newspaper instead of glass, keeps the six mouths above the water-line by means of unimaginable economies. The other is at the summit of filth, light-heartedness, jollity and physical ruin. Children of every complexion from many ardently, if briefly, loved fathers. The little girls come into the world, unasked for, yet in splendour, just as a wonderful golden-yellow sunflower appears on a dump from a seed accidentally fallen on a litter-strewn patch of ground. The little boys are hale and bright and once left to themselves they will be like the firm green spikes of a maple grasping the mould and flesh of an old factory wall with its Squat trunk. Amid tears, curses and swearing at her unsought fecundity, amid children’s howling and distributing clips round the ear, all the while standing in a draught with her thin skirt clinging round her knees and an infant sucking at the edge of a dirty cardigan at one moment and at the exhausted bare breast at another, this mother refused to send a single one of her spirited, hungry band into exile.

Among these desperate families in their death threes in now subdued Schiffbek, there is one so happy that women neighbours come round in the evenings to listen to its unusual tranquillity. A small, dark woman, prematurely aged but with the blackest eyes and the duskiest colouring and something southern about her voice that crackles like well-baked ash-covered chestnuts snapping under the embers in the frost. Her children, four of them, are as if planned, either quite blond with blue eyes or olive-skinned with black eyes. Little Czechs and little Germans alternately. Her husband is comrade R., an old communist who had been beaten up in the army because of his Polish surname and his dangerously taciturn manner behind which the sergeant-major sensed a pacifist; a member of the Spartacus Group, one of the oldest fighters in the KPD and wounded in the Kapp Putsch.

There are periods in every man’s life when pus accumulates and festers. Every abrasion — baby’s sickness, an unpleasant exchange with the boss, meeting a spy just after coming out of an illegal gathering — all take a nasty, malignant turn. Comrade R., a foreigner and burdened with a family, out of work half the week and long known as a communist, felt keenly that he and his four could at any minute now slip under the wheel. They were all very tired, growing terribly hungry and cold.

Then the battles. Yet October had not yielded the victory which Schiffbek, that Verdun of the Hamburg Rising, had so fantastically believed in. The police had not managed to catch R. who had taken such an energetic part in the movement.

From abroad he sent his wife a letter and a visa. One of those rare miracles that still do happen.

Everyone in R.’s flat thawed out, relaxed, took a breath and started to talk in undertones.

That letter from abroad was like the scrape of a distant spade digging those five human beings out of the avalanche that had crashed on to their roof.


The Hamm quarter. This district is highly inconvenient for street fighting because of the lay-out of its broad straight streets.

It is difficult to tie its expansive avenues in a girdle of barricades. The smooth, bare frontages of the workers’ barracks fall sheer to the slippery asphalt. The walls provide no cover for lone marksmen who prefer the ledges, bays and lofty porchways of the older-style dwellings. Spades and crowbars break their teeth trying to dig up that rolled-out lava. You need to fell a few fully-grown trees to seal off such a street. But trees do not grow in slum quarters. What’s more Hamm’s straight, empty, smooth streets like stone channels, can easily be defended by one machine-gun mounted at a cross-roads: there are miles of exposed spaces that mercilessly betray to binoculars any crouching figure, in vain seeking cover and protection in the mean shadow of those inhuman facades — a figure with a cap pulled down over his eyes, a woollen scarf wound round his chin and a rifle in his hands.

All these unfavourable features did not prevent Hamm from becoming the arena of brief but very intense battles. Not even the motley petty-bourgeois nature of the population could dull them: to a man the students that made up a considerable proportion of it offered their services to the police — not on their home ground but after they had stolen off to more secure sectors of the city.

An armed rising presupposes the presence of people with weapons in their possession. The Hamburg Rising was a rising of unarmed workers confronted above all with arming themselves at the expense of the enemy.

In the Hamm zone there were five police stations permanently occupied by Sipo units; apart from the weapons in the hands of the policemen the military organisation was expecting to seize the small armouries in each one.

Thus in Hamm as in other parts of the city the struggle started with unarmed workers seizing the small police fortresses guarded by sentries and packed with their military complement and ammunition of every kind.

One of the toughest police stations was seized by twelve workers with an antiquated pistol.

At the very doorway of the police station the detachment seemed to waver. Then one of the comrades whose name, Rolfshagen, can be spoken with pride — the gates of a hard-labour camp have now slammed behind him — tossed out to his men: “Nun man los!” (Well, let’s go!) and, without looking to see if anyone was following or not, leapt over the three steps with his huge legs and burst into the station. Behind him came his friend, a young compositor, but no one else. The only revolver, unloaded at that, was jabbed into the crowd of Sipos. Seeing their indecision, Rolfshagen bellowed in a quite unreal voice and crashed his fist down meaningfully on the table. Papers started to fly, the holy oil in the inkwells was spattered about and state power tottered to its foundations.

“Man los, hier wird nicht lange gefackelt!” (Let’s go, it’s no time to hang about!)

The police surrendered, put their hands up and were disarmed and locked away by the comrades who had caught them up. What should they do now! Hold out in the captured Revier (police station) or go out on to the streets and dig in, or rush to the aid of Barmbeck from where the sound of relentless gunfire reached their ears! And all the while there was no contact with the centre.

When sitting in his corner at party meetings, sucking on his pipe silently fluffing himself up in his bristly hunched waterproof docker’s gear, Rolfshagen would never chatter. He did not like phrases, silver as bicycle-wheel spokes, and the calls to struggle of which party intellectuals are so fond. He conceived of an uprising as something simple and straightforward, without retreats, without the slightest vacillations and deviations, like the sweep of a crane snatching up its prey, the straightness of a compass needle and the unerring course of a ship. And so, without receiving any instructions, Rolfshagen loaded his rifle, stacked up the cartridges in handy piles and made ready to fight it out and die beside a window whose ledge afforded a slight cover.

His comrades tried in vain to draw him along with them, arguing the whole danger of a position that could be surrounded and cut off. Rolf decided to stay.

“Dat is Befehl ick blieb “ (That’s an order, I’m sticking to it) and he stayed. An hour later this man’s duel with the police who had flooded into the district began. Having fired his last cartridge he finally fell, wounded in the head, chest and stomach, losing consciousness from a terrific boot to the ribs.

Rolfshagen did not die in the hospital where they had removed six pieces of lead from his body. Confident of the revolution’s speedy victory he refused to run but with a grin accepted the ten years’ hard labour which Scheidemann’s mercy had granted him. Even in the doorway of the court he turned round to the crowd and shouted to his friends interspersed among the thick wad of bourgeois in the audience:

“Don’t forget to keep my revolver clean; I’ll be coming out to get it soon!”

That was the capture of the Fort Street police station.

Now, Mittelstrasse. To begin with, Charli Setter, a member of the provincial parliament who had been entrusted with the leadership of a combat unit, did not show up until right at the very end of the conflict and displayed a shameful lack of resolution, diffidence and faintheartedness.

Secondly, a worker, no longer young but extremely agile and, as they say in German, aufgeweckt, whose narrow anaemic face was framed by a small black beard like a black-edged mourning envelope and twitched with the vague tremble of neuralgic pain. He had sat out the entire war in the trenches and came out a cripple, gravely wounded in the head, susceptible to agonising pains, epileptic fits and hysteria. His disability had not however stopped his injured head from re-considering and reviewing his old convictions as a social democrat and party official. Cursing the war and the workers’ party that had acted as its livestock supplier he courageously broke with the organisation he had belonged to for over fifteen years.

The comrades were afraid to rely too much upon K. whom simple party discussions had caused to recant. But during the Aktion he not only remained in the battles and risked the greatest danger but never gave free rein to his fractured nerves. His conduct was irreproachable from start to finish.

In the assault on police station no. 23 two remarkable brothers marched alongside K. Rott, a curly-headed giant and building worker by trade. I cannot remember the exact description of his Branche (trade). Anyway it was a short tradesman’s formula that included iron, concrete and coal. It had a proud ring like the motto on an order of labour. In reply to all my questions this comrade merely shook his Siegfriedian head and refused at any price to disclose any information about his personal role in the business. So a long shadow continues to lie across that stern regular face: one like those of the caryatides dumbly holding up a whole structure. Beside him was L., a highly-skilled joiner and a man of exceptional culture and courage. The swarthy colour of his face, the southern vivacity of his eyes and the mock romanticism with which he defaces and gouges out the planed, lacquered commonplaces of political jargon (just as the craftsman tests the blade of his tool on the edge of his bench), seem to point to Slav and possibly Jewish blood. A fiery political temperament and a cool inward sobriety thanks to which L., as one of the finest and most remarkable Hamburg fighters, never for one instant forgets deep within himself that the revolution’s most flaming words are in fact written in crude oil paint on cheap red calico. An enthusiast with a small, hermetically-sealed ice-box in his heart. His conscious self-abnegation and the fury with which he can at the requisite moments cast aside the cool rationality which bugged him, are far more valuable than any innate valour.

Three anarchist brothers fought alongisde Rott and L. Brave men who had left the party a few months earlier because of Its inactivity, but who took up rifles as soon as the password for the Rising was issued. Their whole family consists of communists. The sixty-year-old mother, the sisters and the two brothers-in-law also took part in the movement. In short, a family cell, a Soviet knot of which there are quite a few deep down among German workers. This group (twenty-eight workers with two revolvers and one rubber truncheon) overran their police station quite brilliantly, surrounding it on either side, disarming the police and availing themselves of its store of arms.

Meanwhile, around seven o’clock, day began to break. Street traffic had come to a halt (to be sure, only for a few hours in this part of the city) and detachments of armed workers stopped their workmates who were going off to work without suspecting a thing and sent them home.

“What’s happened?”

“The dictatorship of the proletariat has been declared.”

“Dat kun jo sen, ook io nich wieder gohn. (Maybe, but it won’t last.)

“Dan got wi werra nochüs.” (Then let’s go home.)

Not to the barricades, not to the aid of the workers hundreds but home.

Very typical too.

In spite of the lack of further orders from the Staff Centre the majority of insurgents quit the ravaged police stations and moved off in the direction of smoke-shrouded Barmbeck where frantic shooting would nor cease. The only sensible tactic had been arrived at by instinct. There was no way of lifting the asphalt. There were almost no trees. There were too few weapons for them to bring in wider masses; therefore the armed groups dispersed in different directions so as to percolate individually to the embattled quarters.

Rott, L. and the anarchist brothers’ detachment (nine rifles and twelve revolvers altogether) proceeded in the direction of the heaviest exchanges. In one of the stone corridors they were peppered with machine-gun fire from a lorry. The riflemen threw themselves to the ground and then under the canopy of ever closer fire took over down a side street. One of the comrades dropped down on one knee and raised his rifle to his shoulder. It fell instantly from his hands. L. recalls a stream of blood trickling from the pavement, washing into the gutter a cigarette-end someone had dropped. From one side came the roar of a second vehicle. Not noticing the partisans it stood self-assuredly across the end of a small street its heavy undefended flank facing down it. The insurrectionaries fairly swept it with carbine fire. Then the little detachment adopted a mobile square formation switching from place to place for many hours, finally giving real battle on the Central Canal bridge. It was a collapsible, sprawling square which, at the required moment, would roll up and disappear like water on sand. In the centre, three or four first-rate marksmen. They occupy an intersection or the main junction of several major streets. On every adjacent corner look-outs armed with revolvers are posted, each covered by a newspaper kiosk, telephone box or tree-trunk. They fire only at close range during hand-to-hand skirmishes and warn the carbineers of an imminent encirclement. Dashing from place to place, defending and surrendering successive nodal points, this flying squad of marksmen eventually consolidates by the bridge over the Central Canal where the stone creases of the surrounding streets converge in a broad fan. The bridge gently arches its broad back in order to step primly over the course of a wan, ebbing factory canal that is like a thorn in its flesh. The marksmen lie down so that only the barrels of their rifles protrude over the bridge’s hump. Growing up in corsets of iron rods much thicker than their own trunks are a few miserable trees that have not fled this spot only because the concrete has squeezed their sapling roots into clods; they and an emaciated lamp-post provide the only cover for the combatants set out to the right and left of the three sharpest shooting hunters.

All along the bank uninhabitable buildings drop murkily into the water. Only occasionally does a cellar peep-hole open up in a wall spread through with damp. It looks like a shivering gaping mouth surfacing to take a gulp of air only to disappear once again. This is a working-class Venice; where palaces of cotton, fat and iron have no wide marble staircases and embankments; where brick and concrete lapped by poisonous sewage is covered with deposits of regal beauty, coatings of pale green, grey and pinky-brown tints more whimsical and varied than porphyry, marble and malachite — the blood, pearl and ash of the high Quattrocento The grandeur of the craggy cul-de-sacs is underlined not by time but glistening coal. Its shadows are more tragic than those Tintoretto’s hand painted for blossoming Venice. This lagoon that washes round industrial Hamburg knows neither gondolas nor romantic nights. It carries out to sea factory waste, dampness, cold and all the diseases that soak through the walls into the life, dreams, labour and blood of millions of workers. Like doges the factory chimneys look at themselves in cloudy mirrors. Smoke drifts down from their shoulders like resplendent robes and they are betrothed to their grey, cold, polluted sea not by the gold ring of the Adriatic but by the wail of ships’ sirens heralding the arrival of precious raw materials. The nereids have long ago died off in the cold filth of the canals. Now and again urchins fish out of the water the white corpse of a fish floating belly upwards with painfully distended gills.

Over this canal they fought it out. Suddenly the look-outs reported vehicles. They had to change position again. Marksmen once more in the middle of the square and scouts on the corners. A lorry packed with soldiers flies unexpectedly round a corner. With one well-aimed shot Rott manages to damage the engine. The Sipos abandon their vehicle and carry off their wounded. The detachment again makes a desperate sprint and occupies the hub of the next quarter. This time it is attacked by an armoured car under cover of which a line of Greens spreads out. The partisans pick off the lieutenant — a plucky but stupid lieutenant who had sprung forward courageously to rally his men for the assault at the top of his voice. Panic among the Sipos succeeded by a numbing stillness; a stillness quite appropriate to that ghostly realm of deserted canals picked out by the silently fluttering banners of factory smoke and the far-off salves of the Rising being quelled.

The insurgents continue to advance along empty streets, by motionless, glassy rivers, past idle factories locked up like monasteries and eyeless houses with mouths hostilely shut tight; at crossroads they break their formation that was as light and convenient as a nomad’s tent. Finally amid an utter absence of life the rumble of wheels came again across the dead roadway. This time, though, it was only a loaded newspaper truck. Forgetting danger, they fumbled with the tightly lashed bundles and then looked through Fremdenblatt’s soft pages nowhere finding the only words that throughout that day they had been expecting with more tension and torment than their own victory: news of the revolution throughout Germany and the new Republic of Soviets. Rott screwed up one paper and grabbed another. L. read it and went white. Otto wrapped up his wounded hand in that dirty rag refusing to believe its reports and contemptuously nodding his head. It was lying. Yes, it was deliberately keeping quiet about the victorious rising in Berlin, Saxony and everywhere else. It couldn’t be otherwise.

Then they threw the bundles down on to the asphalt and set fire to them. The wind snatched up the blazing sheets and carried them off into the canal. There they drifted like flaming birds, swans set alight.

Volleys crackled in nearby streets. The detachment retreated slowly, illuminated by the ruddy glow of the enormous bonfire that the soldiers were trying in vain to stamp out and break up with their rifle-butts.

German Mensheviks After the Rising

During the recent rising in Hamburg the dockworkers, who had already been on strike for several days, did not join forces with the fighting masses. They roamed the streets, hands thrust in pockets and with innocent curiosity questioned comrades returning from the districts under police siege: what’s up and why? Thousands of workers organised by the social democrats remained peaceful spectators of the Hamburg events. The port workers (with the exception of the shipyards and plants processing petroleum waste, where earnings have fallen to ridiculous levels) are aristocrats compared to the mass of the Hamburg proletariat.

They receive more than the highest grade of inland worker, like, for example, building workers, engineering workers or railwaymen, and of course several times more than those pariahs of Hamburg port, the men employed in the shipyards. During the war this contented layer worked zealously for the war department earning excellent rates of pay; they were exempted from military service and entered the revolution as a cold, reactionary current, perfectly combining their flabby, cosy, contented, petty-bourgeois way of life with an innocuous SPD card In 1918 this Menshevik-organised mass of well-to-do workers fought might and main against the Council of Workers’ Deputies (Soviet), wishy-washy and ambivalent as its policy was. To the demonstrations of unemployed, the banning of bourgeois newspapers and the wrecking of the SPD rag, The Hamburg Echo, which had splashed its yellow pages with daily slanders against the Soviet, these workers had replied with a powerful reactionary counter-demonstration, the arrest of the Soviet’s chairman, the restoration of the bourgeois Senate and a railwayman’s strike that prevented the despatch of strong volunteer units mobilised by the Hamburg proletariat to aid the city of Bremen under siege by General Herstenberg’s officer division. In short it was not the first time that dockers and other workers in the countless port warehouses rendered valuable service to the German counter-revolution.

And well they might! From throughout the world merchant vessels converge upon Hamburg’s convenient harbour. Shipowners have no time to wait, nor time to haggle about a few irrelevant pfennigs. For every day’s delay they have to pay demurrage; delivery dates cannot wait; agreed freightages and rail charges lapse. Due to all these circumstances the stevedores and warehousemen enjoy unquestionable economic privileges while other categories have long since lost both — the eight-hour day and half their pre-war wage! In the course of the revolution’s first two years the reactionary influence of the port never ceased to make itself felt. It was against the socialisation of industrial undertakings, the restriction of private commerce and any social turmoil that might weaken the Free City’s credit-worthiness abroad, strengthen its foreign competitors and de-populate a port that lives on the ebb and flow of the world market.

Back in 1919 Hamburg Mensheviks imagined that Britain would spare the capital of the Uferland (coastal region) in return for their righteous suppression of communism. Today nothing remains of such hopes. The Entente has concertedly chewed up the left-overs of bourgeois-socialist Germany and utterly ruined not just the communists but the most moderate Mensheviks too. Their well-being has faltered, their trade unions gather in alms and their leaders, now chucked out of the Grand Coalition, vote for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie — yet old traditions die hard. The port has been pauperised, but still it is the best-fed of paupers, and fed without painful interruptions. The grateful labour aristocracy assists the police in clearing away the barricades and visits SPD meetings and rallies en masse.

Yesterday was a field-day for them. The Free City of Hamburg was honoured with a visit from the eminent Berliner, the editor of Vorwärts, Genosse Stampfer. Hundreds of workers came to listen. Possibly not a single Russian worker would have the patience to read through to the end an article detailing all the distortions of Marxist thought that the experienced Menshevik had the temerity to put before a working-class audience; in a city, what is more, where trenches that had criss-crossed the suburbs in every direction had only just been filled in, where tenements in workingclass quarters are lacerated with bullets, where dead policemen number dozens and injured, arrested and beaten workers hundreds. And yet you must have a clear conception of the entire decay and headlong decline of working-class and petty-bourgeois Germany, corrupted by half a century of castrated, emasculated pseudo-socialism, to appreciate the tremendous act of heroism that, under such conditions, Hamburg’s armed uprising represented. To rise up in that swamp, that cowardly, deeply reactionary quagmire, was a thousand times harder than beneath our old Tsarist soldier’s boot or against a distinct, easily recognisable, renegade black Fascist shirt.

Doctor Stampfer was not trying to be particularly logical. After all he felt himself to be in the provinces where a good player can without embarrassment cheat with a clearly marked card. In the first place all Germany’s misfortunes stem from the endless multiplicity of regional parliaments. They should be abolished and centralised. Secondly, only a strong state power is capable of protecting the working class from the offensive of capital. Only the state (shouts: ‘what sort?”bourgeois?’) can uphold the eight-hour day for the workers. Even worthy, portly, greying SPD members started to feel ill at ease somehow, but German Mensheviks have the orator’s ingenuous and always effective remedy: as soon as the gallery begins to whistle and the old men start looking round at each other restively and mutter:’Oh, yes? Well I never!’, the speaker drags Wilhelm out on to the stage. Alive, in moustache and full military dress. The speaker need only punch him on the nose, tell a couple of anecdotes about the ex-emperor’s stupidity and have the unprecedented courage to abuse Wilhelm as a fool, idiot and maniac for the philistine to quake rapturously in the face of such blasphemy and the audience to be conquered. Having spat at Wilhelm the SPDer passes on to the communists.

It turns out that it is they who have smashed the sacred chalice of the Republic. Lacking any esteem for the legal forms of democracy and the noble philanthropic methods of parliamentary struggle they have sullied the skirts of that innocent maiden, the Republic, with the blood of their own brother proletarians.

Amid a deep hush Stampfer hurls his accusation:

“In Prussia communists brutally tortured two police officers. Isn’t the poor Schupo (policeman) as much a proletarian as ourselves?”

From somewhere above a very shrill mocking wail stifled by virtuous grunting:

“Down with Scheidemann! Hang Ebert from the lamppost! “

“Ebert,” says the Vorwärts editor beating his starched breast, “Ebert, that son of the people, has attained the supreme responsibilities of state thanks to his talents! The German proletariat can be proud that a son from its own depths has reached such a peak!”

Pope Ebert appears aloft in the clouds of parliamentarism. The Republic stretches forth over him the crown of victory, and signals to the ballot box: one out of millions can win two hundred thousand pounds or become president. Democracy’s divine lottery.

Stampfer admits to some of the party’s mistakes with a disarming frankness. The party has been learning. Nothing is gained without trials and suffering. “But why do we always only condemn our own party — it debilitates us. We should make our criticisms in private, face to face. Take, for example, Dr. Hertz, Breitscheid and myself.” A note of confidence and intimate simplicity. “They voted against the motion of confidence in the Marx government but I was for it. So what? Did we quarrel over it? You just don’t! We travelled in the same compartment and didn’t talk politics — we were up to here with it (a gesture of having had his fill) and on the station we had some sausages together. But think how we had argued about it in the faction — almost coming to blows.”

The electors are always flattered when they are allowed to take a peep through the keyhole into the kitchen of big-time politics. Ten or twelve speakers, one after another, spoke against the worthy Vorwärts. They demonstrated the following elementary truths: 1) the social democrats have safely delivered the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie; 2) such a dictatorship will be directed exclusively against the working class; 3) the SPD bears not only moral but also formal responsibility for this.

All those speakers who, in their ten allotted, fast-flowing minutes punctuated by the chairman’s bell, attempted tortuously to substantiate their most profound disillusionment with the party and their rage at its crimes were met with clapping, nodding and loud pre-arranged ovations. Then, with exceptional uniformity and an overwhelming majority, a motion of confidence in the SPD’s parliamentary faction was carried. Having given their deputy a chewing-over, shoved his nose in the sins of the SPDers and revealed their complete understanding of his sharkish tricks, the electors wiped Stampfer’s broken nose clean and let him go off home with a vote of full confidence. A card-sharp must not dupe his own side for then he will be beaten. But cheat for the benefit of that dear middle class and outplay the hated revolution — he can and should.


[1] ‘Menshevik’ is used in Hamburg at the Barricades in a general colloquial sense of ‘right-wing-dominated’ or ‘reformist’. (R.C.)

[2] Sicherzeitspolizei — security police. (R.C.)

[3] Unit A, the plain-clothes branch of the security police. (R.C.)

[4] The Blues are the security police who wore blue uniforms while the Greens are probably Reichswehr soldiers. (R.C.)