On this date in 1919, Bavarian communist Eugen Levine (or Levien) was shot by the Freikorps for his role in the Munich Soviet.
Levine (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a St. Petersburg Jewish bourgeois whose early idealism led him to a Socialist Revolutionary (SR) terror cell. He did time in Siberia after Russia’s 1905 revolution was smashed.
Having moved to Germany to study, Levine became involved in World War I’s antiwar struggle, which in turn positioned him to be a key player in the communist movement in postwar Germany.
With the end of the Great War, Germany’s destiny was settled with bare knuckles. The now-communist Russian government, whose safety was imperiled from every direction, looked hopefully to a revolutionary proletariat in the more advanced neighboring economy of Germany to consolidate its own position as well as to meet the Marxist mandate for transnational revolution.
The Bolshevik Karl Radek urged an audience of Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s KPD that “without the socialist revolution in Germany the Russian workers’ revolution, dependent on itself, would not have sufficient strength to build a new house on the ruins left behind by capitalism.” (Source)
Nonetheless, Munich mounted a revolt breaking away an independent Bavarian state that would eventually usher in a Bavarian Soviet Republic. This state Eugen Levine seized control of on April 12, 1919, with a communist putsch against the expressionist playwright who had served as its first head of state.* Levine would be the second, and last, in that office.
In the end, the KPD in Munich — and not only there, but throughout Germany — simply lacked the organizational strength or the mass mobilization to sustain the attempted revolution(s) against its inevitable foes. By May of 1919, its threadbare forces had been overwhelmed by right-wing soldiers and paramilitaries.** Defenders of the city and actual or perceived revolutionaries were shot out of hand by the hundreds.
This obviously staged photo purports to depict a Freikorps execution of a (theatrically unfazed) Bolshevik in Munich in 1919. (Source)
Levine’s treatment was, if equally certain, at least marginally more ceremonial.
Captured in hiding a few days after the incursion, Levine was saved for a show trial† at the start of June.
He met it in impressively good cheer, despite a good idea what was coming.
We Communists are all dead men on leave. Of this I am fully aware. I do not know if you will extend my leave or whether I shall have to join [the late] Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. In any case I await your verdict with composure and inner serenity. For I know that, whatever your verdict, events cannot be stopped … Pronounce your verdict if you deem it proper. I have only striven to foil your attempt to stain my political activity, the name of the Soviet Republic with which I feel myself so closely bound up, and the good name of the workers of Munich. They — and I together with them — we have all of us tried to the best of our knowledge and conscience to do our duty towards the International, the Communist World Revolution.
Left and center parties raised a pan-Germanic outcry to stay the executioner’s hand, but Levine was shot two days after condemnation.‡
Munich transmuted, with this conquest, from an outpost of the revolutionary vanguard into a veritable far-right hothouse: just weeks after Levine’s execution, Adolf Hitler would make his fateful acquaintance with the NSDAP in Munich. Within a few years he and his germinated their own Bavarian revolution. Munich and its beer hall (which the Freikorps had used for summary executions in May 1919) were long hallowed of the Third Reich.§
* The deposed president, Ernst Toller, “hanged himself” in 1939. Auden paid him tribute in moving verse.
Dear Ernst, lie shadowless at last among
The other war-horses who existed till they’d done
Something that was an example to the young.
We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.
It is their tomorrow hangs over the earth of the living
And all that we wish for our friends; but existing is believing
We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving.
** The aide-de-camp of the Freikorps Epp that marched into Munich that first week of May was the future SA chief Ernst Röhm. Also participating in this sortie: early Nazi leaders (and eventual Hitler rivals) Gregor and Otto Strasser, and future Wannsee Conference participant Wilhelm Stuckart.
† The young lawyer Max Hirschberg drew first dibs on defending the doomed Levine before his drumhead court, but faint-heartedly passed the assignment off. Hirschberg would remember the moment with shame: “I was too insecure and too cowardly to confront the scornful sneer of the reactionaries,” he wrote.
Maybe Hirschberg’s harsh self-judgment steeled his soul, for soon the “orgy of brutality, bloodthirstiness, and injustice aroused in me a decisive transformation.” He began to aggressively seek out hated revolutionaries to represent in the teeth of the political winds. Hirschberg had a notable mano-a-mano courtroom confrontation with Adolf Hitler in 1930; he had to flee Nazi Germany in 1934, but built a career in New York where he blazed trails with his work on wrongful convictions. There’s a summation of his career in this pdf; or, see the 2005 biography Justice Imperiled.
‡ Primary newspaper coverage (e.g., London Times, June 9, 1919) confirms the date; the “July 5” widely cited in online articles is mistaken.
§ The Nazis erected a memorial to the Freikorps who crushed the Bavarian Soviet; its remains can still be seen today.