Marxist revolutionaries

The Spartacists were a Marxist revolutionary group that was active in Germany during the period of the German Revolution and the early years of the Weimar Republic. They were named after the ancient Roman slave and gladiator Spartacus, who led a rebellion against the Roman Empire.

The Spartacists were founded in 1916 by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, two prominent Marxist revolutionaries who were opposed to World War I. During the German Revolution of 1918-1919, they played a leading role in the establishment of the Weimar Republic and the overthrow of the German monarchy.

Machine-gun position on the quadriga of the Brandenburger Tor, Berlin, during the Spartacist uprising.

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The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) was a political party in Germany that was founded in 1875 and played a significant role in the country's political and social history. The SPD was the first mass workers' party in Europe and was one of the largest and most influential socialist parties in the world.

The SPD newspaper Vorwarts explains the party’s support for Germany's participation in the First World War.

The Social Democratic Party (SPD) (

The Spartacus League was initially a breakaway group from the SPD, as the SPD had supported the war effort, while the Spartacus League opposed it and called for a socialist revolution. However, the two groups had different ideologies and goals, and the Spartacus League was more radical and revolutionary in its approach.

The SPD had supported the war effort, while the Spartacus League opposed it and called for a socialist revolution. The Spartacus League was initially a small group, but it gained popularity during the German Revolution of 1918 – 1919.

Despite their differences, the SPD and the Spartacus League both played important roles in the Revolution which marked the end of the monarchy and the beginning of the Weimar Republic.

Rosa Luxembourg

Rosa Luxemburg was a Marxist theorist, philosopher, and revolutionary who was active in the socialist movement in Germany and Europe.

She was born in Poland in 1871 and later moved to Germany, where she became involved in the socialist movement.

Luxemburg was a leading figure in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), and she played a key role in the development of Marxist theory and the socialist movement in Germany.

She was known for her strong opposition to World War I, and she was one of the founders of the Spartacus League, a Marxist revolutionary group that was active in Germany during the period of the German Revolution and the early years of the Weimar Republic.

Rosa Luxembourg

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Luxemburg was a vocal critic of the Weimar Republic and she argued that only a socialist revolution could bring about real change in Germany. She was involved in a number of uprisings and revolutions, including the Spartacist uprising of 1919, which aimed to overthrow the Weimar government.

Karl Liebknecht

Karl Liebknecht 

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Karl Liebknecht was a Marxist revolutionary who was active in the socialist movement in Germany and Europe.

He was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1871 and later became involved in the socialist movement.

Liebknecht was also a leading figure in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and played a key role in the development of the movement in Germany.

He was a vocal critic of the First World War and with Rosa Luxembourg, was one of the founders of the Spartacus League.

Liebknecht was a strong opponent of the Weimar Republic, and he believed that only a socialist revolution could get Germany back on track. Like his compatriot Luxembourg, He was involved in a number of uprisings and revolutions during this period, although is most well known for his involvement in the Spartacist uprising of 1919, which would ultimately lead to both him and Luxembourg’s death.

The Spartacist Uprising

The Spartacists were strongly opposed to the Weimar Republic and its liberal democratic principles and sought to establish a socialist regime in Germany. They were involved in a number of uprisings and revolutions, including the Spartacist uprising which aimed to overthrow the Weimar government.

The political platform of the Spartacists advocated for a workers' revolution to kick off the establishment of a German-Soviet state. The Spartacists were active in the cities during the final weeks of 1918, aiming to persuade industrial workers to organise, mobilise, and rise up while Ebert's government was busy finalising the armistice and setting up elections for a national assembly.

Armed workers’ militia controlling a street in Berlin during the Spartacists Uprising.

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The German Revolution erupted once more on Christmas Eve 1918 when unpaid sailors captured a government building after a brief period of relative peace. There they were joined by Spartacist members and armed guards. After a brief confrontation, the Reichswehr (military) withdrew from the demonstrators' intended arrest.

The Spartacists reconvened as the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) at a congress held in Berlin on 30th December 30. 

Rosa Luxemburg addressed the crowd there and said:

Planned strikes

The executive committee of the Berlin USPD and the Revolutionary Stewards planned to conduct a demonstration the following day on January 4th, Their expectations were far exceeded by the size of the protest on 5th January. Armed protesters took over the printing facilities of the Social Democratic newspapers Vorwärts and Berliner Tageblatt, as well as many publishing house buildings, a printing factory, and a telegraph office during the demonstration. They were incited and helped by informers and provocateurs.

Jörn Schütrumpf, a historian, referred to the alleged police informant diversion of the huge protests from the government district to the media district as a "strategic masterstroke."

German poster promoting the Spartacist League in Berlin (1918).

On the evening of 5th January, the top representatives of the Revolutionary Stewards, the USPD, and the KPD gathered to discuss the best course of action. The majority of those in attendance agreed that it was a good idea to fight against the Social Democratic government and backed the occupation of the Berlin newspaper district.

Rosa Luxemburg persisted in her opposition to revolution, while Karl Liebknecht had been "whipped into a state of revolutionary euphoria" by the size of the protest and the false rumour that all regiments in and surrounding Berlin were on their side.

A provisional revolutionary committee to overturn the government and seize power was chosen by around 70 of the attendees, with only six Revolutionary Stewards voting against it. Fifty-three persons made up the committee, and its three co-equal chairmen were Georg Ledebour, Liebknecht, and Paul Scholze.

Invading Berlin

The Spartacists attempted an armed invasion of Berlin on January 5th, 1919. Hundreds of union members and industrial employees were given weapons and told to capture strategic locations across the capital.

The SPD headquarters, police stations, telegraph offices, and public buildings were all occupied. On important roads and intersections, the revolutionaries often manned checkpoints or barricaded them.

The following day, the Revolutionary Committee urged Berlin's workers to go on strike on 7th January in order to depose Ebert's administration.

Approximately 500,000 people flocked to the city's core to heed the summons. 

Barricade battle in Berlin, January 1919.

Alfred Grohs - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Despite being prepared to disarm the soldiers, as they had been on 9th November, they did not engage in any violence in the days that followed, nor were the strike leaders among them. They used the same slogans from the November Revolution's commencement, such as "Peace and Unity," on some of their placards and banners.

The committee was unable to come to a decision during the course of the following two days. Some lawmakers demanded a violent uprising, while others begged Ebert for dialogue. Particularly, the committee was unable to direct the hundreds of thousands of protesters who were waiting for instructions in the streets and public spaces. 

Spartacists behind barricades made from rolled newspaper in Berlin during the Spartacist uprising, 1919.

On the evenings of the 6th and 7th of January, they returned home as a result. According to journalist Sebastian Haffner, they would have had the opportunity to overturn the People's Deputies administration on those two days by seizing control of the Reich Chancellery.

The Revolutionary Committee started talking with Ebert on 6th January with the help of USPD leadership. On 7th January, the negotiations broke down because neither party was willing to make concessions.

While the insurgents insisted on Eichhorn's reinstatement, the Council of People's Deputies urged that the buildings housing the occupied newspapers be evacuated. Thus, the opportunity for a peaceful resolution of the problem was lost.

Spartacist barricade during the uprising.

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The same day, Ebert appointed Gustav Noske as commander of the forces stationed in and around Berlin, and requests for the creation of further Freikorps battalions were made. Such Freikorps battalions had been created from former frontline soldiers and volunteers since the beginning of December 1918.

Now, Ebert and Noske permitted them to muster in and around Berlin with Republic-supporting groups and imperial troops, some of which were Republic-friendly but most of which were hostile. Noske gave the order to watch all Revolutionary Committee members as soon as he was appointed so that they may be arrested later. 50 officers were stationed at each Berlin post office to achieve this.

Freikorps mortar and and its crew brought to Dusseldorf to suppress the Spartacists outside their headquarters. Dusseldorf, 2 February 1919.

THE SPARTACIST UPRISING, JANUARY 1919 | Imperial War Museums (

The uprising falters

Due in large part to the fact that it caught Berlin's police and administrative units off guard, the Spartacist revolt was originally successful. The Spartacists were successful in their street battles early in the uprising and were able to paralyse large portions of Berlin.

Although Liebknecht was able to rally support from 500,000 Berliners and bring the city to a standstill, he lacked a clear strategy for capturing power. The Spartacist leader and his 53-member revolutionary committee hesitated as the uprising reached its height. Liebknecht withdrew to an office to compose newspaper pieces rather than moving on to demand the overthrow of Ebert's newly established government.

In the meantime, the SPD administration took action to thwart this fresh, extreme uprising. In doing so, it drew upon aspects of the previous order as well as its circumspect collaboration with the armed forces, originally established on 10th November 1918.

The Freikorps arrive

Ebert called up defence minister Gustav Noske and sent him to Berlin, citing the need to reestablish order. Noske now mobilised around 3,000 Freikorps there.

Most of the Freikorps soldiers were fervently anti-communist and nationalist. More significantly, they were trained, combat-tested soldiers who still carried military equipment such as machine guns, artillery, and even flamethrowers.

Freikorps soldiers on the streets of Berlin during the Spartacist uprising 1919.

By 10th January, these Freikorps had gathered and were getting ready in the western Berlin suburbs. The rebels, who were utterly outgunned, engaged in a series of violent street confrontations with them as they pushed into the city the following morning.

The murders of Liebknecht and Luxemburg

The Spartacist rebellion was put down by the Freikorps in less than three days, and Berlin was taken.

Prior to being betrayed and taken prisoner, its two main leaders, Liebknecht and Luxemburg, were pursued through the suburbs for two days.

Luxemburg was killed by being struck with rifle butts and having her body thrown into the biggest canal in Berlin. After being shot in the head, Liebknecht was dumped in a nearby mortuary.

A 1920 woodcut by Kollwitz showing German workers mourning the loss of Liebknecht.

The Spartacist uprising (

Head of Rosa Luxemburg's funeral march, 13 June 1919.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1976-067-25A / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Serious turmoil and revolutions spread throughout the German Reich as a result of the executions on 15th January. In order to combat them as well as the soviet republics established in numerous important German towns, Gustav Noske sent out Freikorps and Reichswehr battalions.

The last to fall, the Bavarian Soviet Republic, was forcefully overthrown on 3rd May. About 5,000 people died as a result of the violence, which was frequently comparable to that in Berlin and included multiple political assassinations of prominent left-wing figures.


Ebert and his ministers responded to the criticism of these hasty killings by promising to hold those involved accountable. Evidence gathered later reveals that Noske and most likely Ebert ordered their slaying. Despite being tried, two Freikorps members received low sentences. During the battle for Berlin, some 100 additional Spartacists along with 17 Freikorps perished.

The Spartacists survived but were driven underground and reorganised as the German Communist Party, or KPD.

Veteran of the unsuccessful insurrection in January 1919, Karl Retzlaw, remembered the months that followed:

The Liebknecht-Luxemburg rally, held in Berlin on the second weekend of January each year, honours Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. It concludes with the Socialists' Memorial in the Central Cemetery of Friedrichsfelde.

There is a plaque with the names of the militants who died there during the later Berlin March Battles at Rathausstraße 10 in Berlin-Lichtenberg.

The Spartacists Uprising left a lasting legacy in Germany, as their ideas and actions influenced the rise of more radical socialist movements in the country, such as the Communist Party of Germany.

Memorial plaques for the fighters who died in the uprising.

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