May 12 – October 8, 2017
Revolutionary and State Premier – Kurt Eisner (1867-1919)

“Eisner, in just over one hundred days of rule, had more ideas, showed more plain common sense, and stimulated more intellectual energy than others had in fifty years. His belief in the power of ideas transforming reality moved even skeptics.”
(Heinrich Mann in his memorial address on the occasion of Kurt Eisner’s funeral at the Odeon, Munich’s former concert hall, on March 16, 1919)

To mark the 150th birthday of Kurt Eisner, Bavaria’s first State Premier, the Münchner Stadtmuseum has mounted an exhibition that examines his journalistic and political career. His personality divides opinion as much today as it did during his lifetime. While some dismiss him as an idealist and utopian, others celebrate him as progressive and a man of action.

Kurt Eisner was born in Berlin on 14 May 1867 and enjoyed a sheltered upbringing in the home of middle-class Jewish parents before starting a career as a journalist. From the mid-1890s, he became increasingly vocal in his criticism of the ruling class and his support for ordinary working people.

In 1898 he was recruited by the Social Democratic Party’s most important publication, its newspaper “Vorwärts”. It was only then that he actually joined the party. However, it was not long before major differences of opinion began to surface. Eisner branded official party ideology a “policy of ostentatious inaction”, personally favoring a more proactive style of confrontation.

After leaving “Vorwärts” in 1905, he turned his attention towards practical political education. He saw the educational approach to the social and political emancipation of the proletariat as the goal of his journalistic and propaganda work.

Fritz Schaefler (1888-1954), Kurt Eisner I, woodcut after a photograph by Germaine Krull, March 1919 © Münchner Stadtmuseum
Germaine Krull, Kurt Eisner, photograph, before February 1918 © Münchner Stadtmuseum
Kurt Eisner, Unterdrücktes aus dem Weltkriege (Untold truths about World War I), published by Georg Müller Verlag, Munich 1919 © Münchner Stadtmuseum
„Wählt die Vertreter der Unabhängigen Sozialdemokratie!” (Vote for the representatives of the Independent Social Democracy Party, USDP), Poster of the USPD for the Reichstag election in January 1919 © Münchner Stadtmuseum

Eisner was now becoming increasingly prominent as a politician and gave frequent public speeches. In 1910, he finally moved to Munich. When the First World War broke out, Eisner was initially in favor, swallowing the official line that it was being fought to protect Germany. However, when he had thoroughly researched the matter, he quickly changed his mind and, by the fall of 1914, was already beginning to criticize the German Reich’s handling of the war. The SPD did not support him in this. As a result, Eisner joined the newly formed Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) in April 1917 which favored an immediate peace settlement without any annexation. He succeeded in organizing the Munich munitions workers’ strike of January 1918, an important protest in the lead-up to the revolution. He was subsequently arrested as one of the strike leaders and was only released from custody shortly before the outbreak of the October 1918 revolution when he was nominated as the leading USPD candidate in Munich.

During the night of 7–8 November 1918, Eisner finally proclaimed the foundation of the Bavarian Republic. He became the first Premier of the People’s State of Bavaria. He and his cabinet governed in cooperation with the selfregulated workers’, farmers’ and soldiers’ councils. However, cracks soon started to appear in his coalition and it was not long before new elections to the Bavarian State Parliament had to be called.

On 21 February 1919, Eisner, following a crushing defeat at the polls in which his USPD party won less than 3% of the votes, was on his way to the State Parliament to tender his resignation as Bavarian Premier when he was shot dead in the street by an anti-semitic nationalist.