Eisner, Kurt (1867–1919)

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EISNER, KURT (1867–1919)


German revolutionary leader.

Kurt Eisner served as one of the leaders of the Bavarian revolution of 1918–1919 that toppled the Wittelsbach dynasty and introduced republican government to that southern German state. As provisional prime minister of the new government, Eisner proved incapable of gaining control over the chaotic political situation in postwar Bavaria and fell victim to assassination in February 1919. His brief moment in the political spotlight exemplified both the soaring aspirations and the fumbling incompetence of the Bavarian revolutionaries.

Kurt Eisner was undoubtedly one of the most unlikely figures ever to hold political power in Bavaria. Unlike most of the power brokers in that land, he was neither a Bavarian native nor a Catholic, but a Jew from Berlin. Physically, he was the antithesis of the earthy Bavarian; he had a spindly frame, sallow skin, and a long gray beard. It was impossible to imagine him in lederhosen. He had moved to Munich in 1910 to take up a post as drama critic for the socialist newspaper Die Münchner Post. Soon he became a regular at the Café Stefanie, a coffeehouse in Schwabing, the bohemian district that gave birth to the Bavarian revolution.

Eisner might have remained an obscure coffee-house intellectual had it not been for World War I, which, as it brought increasing misery to the German home front, generated an impassioned antiwar movement. In 1917 Eisner emerged as a spokesman for the newly formed Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), which, unlike the more moderate Social Democratic Party (SPD), argued that only a socialist revolution could bring an end to the war. A follower of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, Eisner delivered speeches filled with glowing abstractions and idealistic slogans. Nebulous though Eisner's rhetoric was, however, his fiery idealism had a genuine appeal at a time when misery and deprivation set people dreaming of a new epoch for mankind.

Eisner's call for strikes to cripple the German war effort resulted in his imprisonment in January 1918, but the Bavarian government released him in October of that year in an effort to placate the militant left. Eisner was not to be placated. He immediately resumed his revolutionary activities, which gained even more resonance when it became clear that Germany was losing the war. On 7 November 1918, he and his followers instigated mutinies among the royal regiments stationed in Munich and quickly asserted control over the city. The Bavarian monarch, King Ludwig III, fled into exile. Eisner proclaimed the birth of the Bavarian Republic and called on people to help him build a new democratic order.

As the new regime's provisional prime minister, Eisner sought to steer a middle course between embittered monarchists and advocates of a communist order modeled on the Bolshevik experiment in Russia. He brought moderate SPD figures into his coalition government. Eisner had never held office before, however, and lacked the leadership skills and tough-mindedness to shift from the world of coffee-house philosophizing and revolutionary speechmaking to the harsh realities of political administration in a time of extreme volatility. He angered the right by publishing some secret reports that showed how the German imperial government had pushed for war in 1914. He alienated the far left by refusing to place large agricultural, industrial, and financial institutions under state ownership.

Perhaps if he had been granted several years in office, Eisner might have found a way to translate his Kantian vision into political reality, but at a time when thousands were going hungry and armed bands roamed the streets of Munich, few Bavarians were willing to concede their new leader that luxury. Realizing this, Eisner decided to resign after a mere one hundred days in office. However, on 21 February 1919, as he was on his way to the parliament building to resign, Eisner was shot dead by Count Anton Arco auf Valley, a former army officer who despised "the Jew from Berlin."

Because in retrospect Eisner's brief rule seems benign in comparison to what followed his assassination—a short-lived "Bavarian Soviet" run by Schwabing intellectuals; a bloody suppression of the soviet conducted by rightist Free Corps soldiers; and finally years of archconservative rule that made Bavaria a haven for right-wingers from all over Germany—Eisner has been treated by historians rather better than he was by his contemporaries. While recognizing his inadequacies as a political leader, most scholars give him credit for a deeply humane sensibility and a genuine desire to put Bavaria and Germany on a democratic footing. A plaque now marks the spot in Munich where Eisner was assassinated.

See alsoCommunism; Germany; Social Democracy.


Geyer, Martin H. Verkehrte Welt: Revolution, Inflation und Moderne: Munchen 1914–1924. Göttingen, Germany, 1998.

Large, David Clay. Where Ghosts Walked: Munich's Road to the Third Reich. New York, 1997.

Mitchell, Allan. The Revolution in Bavaria, 1918–1919: The Eisner Regime and the Soviet Republic. Princeton, N.J., 1965.

David Clay Large