It’s probable that few Americans have heard of Kurt Eisner. But they currently have the opportunity to acquaint themselves with a figure whose tragic fate anticipated much of the 20th century’s political violence.
Ninety years ago, on February 21, 1919, Eisner was assassinated in Munich. He had just suffered a stinging defeat in state elections and was on his way to the Bavarian parliament to tender his resignation as prime minister, when he was cut down by two pistol shots fired by a right-wing zealot, Anton Graf von Arco auf Valley.
The irony in Eisner’s murder was harsh, for his death destroyed the hopes of millions of Germans desperate for revolutionary change. A mere few months earlier, Eisner had made history in Munich as the first successful German revolutionary after World War I. On November 7, 1918, in front of a crowd of 50,000 cheering people, he had proclaimed the overthrow of the 700-year-old Wittelsbach monarchy and the creation of the new Free State of Bavaria.
Like the better-known German Republic, which was proclaimed two days later in Berlin, following the toppling of the Hohenzollern monarchy, the Free State of Bavaria was led by a coalition of left-wing socialist parties committed to bringing about progressive political change. Eisner and his pacifist allies were convinced that by getting rid of monarchical rule, which had embroiled the country in a disastrous war, and establishing a truly democratic political order that was responsive to the needs of Germany’s long-neglected masses, the path to a better future would be guaranteed.
Conservative Bavarians, however, saw the revolution as an act of treason and viewed the Free State as an alien system imported by foreign agitators.
Eisner’s identity as a German Jew contributed to this image. Born in Berlin in 1867, Eisner was a secular Jew whose primary allegiances were to the socialist movement (for which he had long worked as a journalist — including for a time at the Social Democratic Party’s house organ, Der Vorwärts). Yet, Eisner’s opponents wasted little time emphasizing his Jewish background in drumming up popular opposition to his regime. Some tried to sow suspicion toward Eisner by (falsely) accusing him of being an immigrant Galician Jew named Kosmanowsky. His killer, Arco-Valley, was motivated by antisemitic motives, as well. Ironically, the 22-year-old war veteran was himself half-Jewish — his mother hailed from the Oppenheim banking family — a fact that led him to be rejected for membership in the racist Thule Society (later a feeder organization to the Nazi Party) and contributed to feelings of self-hatred that he unleashed against the man he viewed as a traitor to the German people.
Arco-Valley’s motives aside, the violent events following Eisner’s assassination further cemented the links between Jews and left-wing radicalism in the eyes of conservative Germans. In April 1919, radical anarchists and communists led a series of successive, ill-fated revolutions attempting to establish a Soviet-style system. The leading role of Jewish revolutionaries — Gustav Landauer, Erich Mühsam, Ernst Toller, Eugen Leviné and Max Levien — indicated to some a Jewish conspiracy to overthrow the traditional order.
A vicious counterrevolutionary backlash soon followed. In May, right-wing paramilitary Freikorps units violently suppressed the Bavarian Soviet Republic in actions that saw more than 600 lives lost in brutal street battles.
For years thereafter, Munich became a bastion of right-wing nationalist and antisemitic political sentiment that directly contributed to the rise of the Nazi Party in 1920. Indeed, historians today believe that the city’s supercharged political climate helped inspire an otherwise apolitical war veteran, Adolf Hitler, to enter politics.
The chain of violence that followed Eisner’s assassination has long been misunderstood in Munich. Despite the fact that the present-day Bavarian state (officially known as Freistaat Bayern) owes its very name to Eisner, the political figure’s reputation remains shrouded in myth. Especially among conservatives, his role in the events of 1918 has often been conflated with the communist revolts that followed — the effect being that he has frequently, if unfairly, been maligned as a communist (he was actually an Independent Social Democrat) who brought mayhem to the region.
For this reason, postwar efforts to commemorate his achievements have long been surrounded by controversy. In 1969, the Munich city council’s modest proposal to name a suburban street after Eisner was met with a hail of public protest against honoring a “communist.” Similar opposition in 1989 preceded the creation of a more substantial memorial at the site of his killing in the city center. (Leftists, for their part, have long criticized the fact that the ground-level memorial — a crime-scene outline of Eisner’s corpse — is routinely trodden upon by pedestrians).
It comes as no surprise, then, that Munich continues to grapple with Eisner’s legacy. The city’s progress in facing its revolutionary past is suggested by the large number of related exhibits, lectures and public art projects that are currently under way or scheduled for the coming months. Yet, Eisner is still to receive his due. City authorities ignored a proposal by the local artist and founder of the Kurt Eisner Cultural Foundation, Wolfram Kastner, to rename Munich’s central Marienplatz the Kurt-Eisner-Platz. And a recent city-sponsored bill to create a new monument to Eisner will not be completed in time to mark the 90th anniversary of his death. (The competition’s results are still to be announced, and the monument’s completion date will be in 2010 at the soonest).
But even if the relationship between Munich and Eisner remains ambivalent, the Eisner legacy deserves to be remembered for the milestone that it represents. Eisner’s murder was one of the first political assassinations in a century full of them. Like those who followed him — Walther Rathenau, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy and Yitzhak Rabin — he died in the prime of his life while fighting for peace, justice and a better world. Recalling his sacrifice underscores the ongoing difficulty of realizing the goals he fought in vain to achieve.
Gavriel Rosenfeld is associate professor of history at Fairfield University. He is currently writing a book on Jewish architecture and the memory of the Holocaust.