The following article is from our December 2008 issue.

The Unsung Hero Bavaria's amnesia about the man who abolished the monarchy - By Thomas Schuler

In a peaceful revolution 90 years ago, Kurt Eisner proclaimed the Republic of Bavaria. He was also a Prussian and a communist − and Bavarians have never forgiven him for it.

Bavaria is a conservative, Catholic place. From the speeches of its long-serving politicians, one would think that their local party, the CSU, single-handedly created the state with its mountains, lakes, love of tradition and occasionally headstrong inhabitants. For decades, CSU figureheads including Franz Josef Strauss, Edmund Stoiber and Horst Seehofer have papered the election trail with this message, along with dire warnings about communists and the left in general - and usually won by huge margins.

Leftist tradition in Bavaria and the actual circumstances in which the "Free State of Bavaria" (as it's still called) was founded remain forgotten in the region and are rarely taught in schools. It's as though people were ashamed that theirs was the first German state to have abolished the monarchy, in November 1918.

Is this due to the circumstances? The regime change was effected by a peaceful revolution that only turned into a bloody struggle in which around 1,000 people lost their lives three months later. Ironically, Kurt Eisner, the leader of the revolution and founder of the republic, was of all things Prussian, Jewish and a communist. Eisner was Bavaria's first leader. Not only did he end the 700-year rule of the Wittelsbach dynasty, he also introduced the separation of church and state, gave women the vote, championed social welfare and worker representation and ended Sunday labor.

The rest of his agenda would remain unfulfilled because his tenure as Bavaria's first republican leader was very short. In February 1919, he was voted out of office. On the way to his resignation, he was shot on the street by a conservative aristocrat. The funeral procession to the Ostfriedhof cemetery was one of the largest ever seen in Munich - apparently 100,000 people accompanied his cortège.

Speaking at the ceremony, the writer Heinrich Mann, elder brother of Thomas Mann, commemorated Eisner's achievements. Then, Eisner and his accomplishments were forgotten.

That the Nazis removed his urn on the grounds that, as a Jew, he had no place in an Aryan cemetery is hardly surprising. But even after the collapse of the Third Reich, Eisner was not celebrated in Bavarian historiography or official speeches as a social liberator who had bettered the lives of many people. Rather, he was derided as a "long-haired" and "erratic" dreamer. He was vilified as an agent of chaos, violence and death.

In 2000, people sympathetic to Eisner founded an association named after him. A bronze memorial shows Eisner's silhouette where he fell on the sidewalk of Kardinal-Faulhaber-Strasse next to the Hotel Bayerischer Hof in Munich's city center. Other than that, there is a street named after him in a newer part of the city. For the founder of the republic, that is not much.

In this respect, he shares the same fate as other victims of right-wing violence. Bavarians scuff their feet over the paving stone memorial while admiring proud, towering monuments to kings and generals.

Even the paving stone was the subject of long discussion during which local politicians made loud pronouncements against it. It's not only the man or woman in the street but also state and government who find it difficult to this day to pay their respects to Eisner. This should now change, at least a little.

Berlin-born Eisner came to Munich in 1910 as a journalist. Initially, he devoted his political energies to the SPD. However, he objected to the party's war policy and joined a communist party, the USPD, which had seperated from the SPD. To the annoyance of his party comrades, the teachings of the enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant were more central to Eisner's thinking than those of Marx. Contrary to accusations by his rivals, he had little interest in nationalizing industries.

The population was war-weary and listened to what he had to say. On Nov. 7, 1918, the first anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia, he appeared at a peace rally in Munich. The police had evidence that the USPD was planning a coup. Despite this, they were instructed to act with restraint by King Ludwig III, who was busy trying to make Bavaria's changeover to parliamentary monarchy as trouble-free as possible. Instead of rallying his troops behind him, the king went for a walk in the English Garden.

Around 60,000 people were assembled on the Theresienwiese - today the site of the Oktoberfest - when the rally started at 3 p.m. Eisner demanded an immediate peace agreement, the 8-hour workday and social welfare for the unemployed. He also called on both the Bavarian king and the German emperor to abdicate and proposed replacing the monarchy with socialist workers' and soldiers' councils.

Finally, accompanied by followers, he made his way to the barracks and won over troops for the revolution. During the night, the king went into exile and Eisner became Bavaria's first non-royal leader. On the evening of the "red revolution," bells rang out for freedom across the city.

The SPD municipal government in Munich wants to recall this brief epoch with a memorial and has invited proposals from artists. Eisner was "a great politician who worked for peace," said Munich's SPD mayor Christian Ude in May 2007. "There is hardly anyone else that we know so much about who has been so wronged," he added, calling the amnesia regarding Eisner "an unresolved piece of Bavarian history." The SPD wants to place a bust of Eisner in the Walhalla hall of fame near Regensburg where notable Germans are commemorated.

Whether this plan will succeed is debatable. However, the Center of Bavarian History in the Munich Literature House, which lies close to the site of Eisner's assassination, is commemorating his revolution through Feb. 22. It is a first step, at least.


1918: A Fateful Year

After four years of slaughter in World War I, Germany's generals advised the government on September 1918 to seek peace because the war could no longer be won on the battlefield. Then, on Oct. 24, naval commanders ordered the High Seas Fleet to sail and fight the British in a final battle. The sailors mutinied.

This set off a chain of events bordering on a revolution. Spontaneously organized workers' and soldiers' councils demanded peace and Wilhelm II's abdication. On Nov. 9, Imperial Chancellor Prince Max von Baden didn't want to wait for the kaiser's decision. He feared the radicals could seize power and proclaim a Soviet republic. Von Baden went ahead and announced the abdication (which Wilhelm subsequently confirmed), then handed over the affairs of state to Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

The decision over the future government, a parliamentary democracy or a monarchy, was to be left to a national assembly. Yet on the same day, Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the republic while standing at a window of the Reichstag in Berlin. Communist leader Karl Liebknecht proclaimed yet another republic only hours later, the Free Socialist Republic of Germany, and called for a revolution.

The SPD and a splinter party, the USPD, formed a provisional government on Nov. 10. Ebert reached an agreement with the Supreme Army Command (OHL). Militias subsequently quashed the revolutionary uprisings. National elections were held on Jan. 19, 1919. The SPD emerged thereafter as Germany's strongest party and Ebert became the country's first president.

- LL