Sunday, March 02, 2008

Larissa Reissner – Hamburg at the Barricades

To live through a revolution is the dream of every revolutionary. To experience the overthrow of capitalism and the first steps down the road towards a new society is something that few have experienced in history. One of those who did is a little known activist and writer called Larissa Reissner.

Reissner took part in the Russian Revolution in 1917 and fought gallantly in the civil war that followed as the imperialist powers tried to crush the new born soviet powers. Exceptionally talented Reissner took part in a number of crucial battles. She travelled to Afghanistan, Germany and all over Russian writing, reporting and working for the Bolsheviks.

The importance of her work is described by the German revolutionary Karl Radek, who writes after her death “They [her articles] shall proclaim what the revolution meant for all peoples, for the West and the East, for Hamburg and Afghanistan, for Leningrad and the Urals”.

After Afghanistan, she went to Germany in 1923, there to witness the aftermath of almost 5 years of revolutionary upheaval. The left in Germany was immensely strong. The reformist Socialist Democratic Party had the allegiance on many workers, though it had assisted in the defeat of the Germany Revolution that overthrew the Kaiser and ended World War One The Communist Party was growing, but was tactically inexperienced and had made a number of mistakes during the revolutionary years.

Reissner documents the suffering of ordinary workers in Germany in the early 1920s - a time of mass unemployment and high inflation. This is the background to the central part of this collection of her writings – the abortive Hamburg insurrection of 1924. Hamburg had a powerful working class, a well organised Communist Party and many armed workers dedicated to overthrowing the existing state. It also had hundreds of thousands sick of poverty, starvation and unemployment.

Reissner explains how a belief that the revolution had broken out across Germany led to a mass uprising and street fighting in Hamburg. She describes the snipers, the arresting of the police and the storming of government buildings. She also describes the orderly retreat and the backlash against those who took part.

The articles are brilliantly written. Reissner is clearly a brave and experienced journalist. Her articles spoke not just to the workers reading them in newspapers back in Russia, but the men and women she described. There is a beautiful article that describes how rising price levels affect different stratas in society – clearly written because she spent a day with the milkman, visiting those who could afford no milk, and those who could afford only the cheapest, through to those who had money for the best quality.

While it is bound to be mostly remembered for the accounts of the street fighting in Hamburg, Hamburg at the Barricades is much more than that. Covering all aspects of German life at the time; from the boardrooms of the giant Krupps factories, to life at the coalface, where Reissner went to meet workers and discuss life in Russia with them, the book is a stimulating read and a fascinating insight into the process of revolution.

Hamburg at the Barricades can be read online here, as it's sadly out of print.

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