German Revolution of 1918–1919

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German Revolution
Part of the Revolutions of 1917–1923 and
Political violence in Germany (1918–1933)

Barricade during the Spartacist uprising of 1919
  • First stage:
    29 October – 9 November 1918
    (1 week and 4 days)
  • Second stage:
    10 November 1918 – 11 August 1919
    (9 months and 1 week)

Weimar Republic victory


 German Empire

 German Republic


Soviet Republics:

Supported by:
Commanders and leaders

The German Revolution of 1918–1919 or November Revolution (German: Novemberrevolution) took place in Germany at the end of World War I. It began with the downfall of the German Empire and eventually resulted in the establishment of the Weimar Republic. The revolutionary period lasted from November 1918 until the adoption of the Weimar Constitution in August 1919. Among the factors leading to the revolution were the extreme burdens suffered by the German population during the four years of war, the economic and psychological impacts of the German Empire's defeat by the Allies, and growing social tensions between the general population and the aristocratic and bourgeois elite.

The first acts of the revolution were triggered by the policies of the Supreme Command (Oberste Heeresleitung) of the German Army and its lack of coordination with the Naval Command (Seekriegsleitung). In the face of defeat, the Naval Command insisted on trying to precipitate a climactic pitched battle with the British Royal Navy utilizing its naval order of 24 October 1918, but the battle never took place. Instead of obeying their orders to begin preparations to fight the British, German sailors led a revolt in the naval ports of Wilhelmshaven on 29 October 1918, followed by the Kiel mutiny in the first days of November. These disturbances spread the spirit of civil unrest across Germany and ultimately led to the proclamation of a republic to replace the imperial monarchy on 9 November 1918, two days before Armistice Day. Shortly thereafter, Emperor Wilhelm II fled the country and abdicated his throne.

The revolutionaries, inspired by communist and socialist ideas, did not hand over power to Soviet-style councils as the Bolsheviks had done in Russia, because the leadership of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) opposed their creation. The SPD opted instead for a national assembly that would form the basis for a parliamentary system of government.[1] Fearing an all-out civil war in Germany between militant workers and reactionary conservatives, the SPD did not plan to strip the old German upper classes completely of their power and privileges. Instead, it sought to peacefully integrate them into the new social democratic system. In this endeavour, SPD leftists sought an alliance with the German Supreme Command. This allowed the army and the Freikorps (nationalist militias) to act with enough autonomy to quell the communist Spartacist uprising of 5–12 January 1919 by force. The same alliance of political forces succeeded in suppressing leftist uprisings in other parts of Germany, with the result that the country was completely pacified by late 1919.

The first elections for the new Constituent German National Assembly (popularly known as the Weimar National Assembly) were held on 19 January 1919, and the revolution effectively ended on 11 August 1919, when the Constitution of the German Reich (Weimar Constitution) was adopted.

SPD and the World War

In the decade after 1900, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) was the leading force in Germany's labour movement. With 35% of the national vote and 110 seats in the Reichstag elected in 1912, the Social Democrats had grown into the largest political party in Germany.[2] Party membership was around one million,[3] and the party newspaper Vorwärts attracted 1.5 million subscribers.[4] The trade unions had 2.5 million members who were affiliated with socialist unions.[5] In addition, there were numerous co-operative societies (for example, apartment co-ops and shop co-ops) and other organizations either directly linked to the SPD and the labour unions or at least adhering to Social Democratic ideology. Other major parties in the Reichstag of 1912 were the Catholic Centre Party (90 seats), the German Conservative Party (41), the National Liberal Party (45), the Progressive People's Party (41), the Polish Party (18), the German Reich Party (14), the Economic Union (8), and the Alsace-Lorraine Party (9).[2][6]

At the congresses of the Second Socialist International that began in 1889, the SPD had agreed to resolutions asking for combined action by socialists in the event of a war. Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the SPD, like other socialist parties in Europe, organised anti-war demonstrations during the July Crisis.[7] After Rosa Luxemburg as a representative of the left wing of the party called for civil disobedience and rejection of war in the name of the entire party, Friedrich Ebert, one of the two party leaders since 1913, travelled to Zürich with Otto Braun to save the party's funds from being confiscated.[8]

After Germany declared war on the Russian Empire on 1 August 1914, the majority of SPD newspapers, in contrast to the widespread enthusiasm for the war among the educated classes (the "Spirit of 1914"), were strongly anti-war, although some supporters invoked the fear of the Russian Empire as the most reactionary and anti-socialist power in Europe.[9] In the first days of August, those who supported the war saw themselves in agreement with the late August Bebel, who had died the previous year. In 1904, he had declared in the Reichstag that the SPD would support an armed defence of Germany against a foreign attack. In 1907 he even promised that he himself would "shoulder the gun" if it was to fight against Russia, the "enemy of all culture and all the suppressed".[10] In the face of the general enthusiasm for the war among the population, many SPD deputies worried that they might lose a large number of their voters with their consistent pacifism. German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg rejected plans by high-ranking military officials to dissolve the SPD at the start of the war[11] and exploited the anti-Russian stance of the SPD to procure the party's approval for it.

The party leadership and its deputies were split on the issue of support for the war: 96 deputies, including Friedrich Ebert, approved the war bonds requested by the imperial government. Fourteen deputies, headed by the party co-leader, Hugo Haase, spoke out against the bonds but nevertheless followed party voting instructions and raised their hands in favour.[12] The entire SPD membership in the Reichstag thus voted for the war bonds on 4 August 1914. Haase explained the decision that he had made against his judgment with the words: "We will not let the fatherland alone in the hour of need!"[13] The Emperor welcomed the political truce (Burgfrieden), declaring: "I no longer know parties, I know only Germans!"[14]

Karl Liebknecht in 1915

Even Karl Liebknecht, who became one of the most outspoken opponents of the war, initially followed the line of the party that his father, Wilhelm Liebknecht, had co-founded: he did not defy his political colleagues and voted for the credits.[15] A few days later he joined the Gruppe Internationale (International Group) that Rosa Luxemburg had founded on 5 August 1914 with Franz Mehring, Ernst Meyer, Wilhelm Pieck and others from the left wing of the party, which adhered to the prewar resolutions of the SPD. From that group the Spartacus League (Spartakusbund) emerged on 1 January 1916.[16]

On 2 December 1914, Liebknecht voted against additional war bonds, the only deputy of any party in the Reichstag to do so.[17] Although he was not permitted to speak in the Reichstag to explain his vote, what he had planned to say was made public through the circulation of a leaflet that was deemed unlawful:[citation needed]

The present war was not willed by any of the nations participating in it and it is not waged in the interest of the Germans or any other people. It is an imperialist war, a war for capitalist control of the world market, for the political domination of huge territories and to give scope to industrial and banking capital.

SPD's split

As the war dragged on and the death toll rose, more SPD members began to question adherence to the Burgfrieden (the truce in domestic politics) of 1914.The dissatisfaction increased in 1916 when Paul von Hindenburg replaced Erich von Falkenhayn as Chief of the General Staff and introduced the Hindenburg Programme. In order to double Germany's industrial production, especially of weapons and ammunition, the guidelines of German economic and war policy were to be determined by the Supreme Army Command (Oberste Heeresleitung, OHL) rather than the emperor, chancellor or Reichstag. The Auxiliary Services Act as originally introduced by the OHL in December 1916 proposed full mobilisation and deployment of the workforce, including women, and the "militarisation" of labour relations. It met with such strong criticism, however, that the OHL had to agree to participation by trade unions and the Reichstag parties in the act's implementation. It accepted their demands for arbitration committees, the expansion of trade unions' powers and a repeal of the act at the end of the war.[18][19] Hindenburg and his subordinate Erich Ludendorff nevertheless continued to push towards subjugating civilian life as much as possible to the needs of the war and the war economy.

After the outbreak of the Russian February Revolution in 1917, the first organised strikes erupted in German armament factories in January 1918, with 400,000 workers going on strike in Berlin and around a million nationwide. The strike was organized by the Revolutionary Stewards (Revolutionäre Obleute), led by their spokesman Richard Müller.[20] The group emerged from a network of left-wing unionists who disagreed with the support of the war that came from the union leadership.[21] The American entry into World War I on 6 April 1917 threatened further deterioration in Germany's military position. Hindenburg and Ludendorff called for an end to the moratorium on attacks on neutral shipping in the Atlantic, which had been imposed after the Lusitania, a British ship carrying US citizens, was sunk off Ireland in 1915. Their decision, which became effective on 1 February 1917, signalled a new strategy to stop the flow of US arms and supplies to England and France in order to make a German victory possible before the United States entered the war as a combatant.[22] The Emperor tried to appease the population in his Easter address of 7 April by saying that he would replace Prussia's three-class franchise with secret, direct elections after the war, but the vagueness of the Emperor's promises only increased the workers' will to mount protests.[23]

After the SPD leadership under Friedrich Ebert expelled the opponents of the war from the party in March 1917, the Spartacists joined with revisionists such as Eduard Bernstein and centrists such as Karl Kautsky and founded the anti-war Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) under the leadership of Hugo Haase on 9 April 1917. After that point the SPD, which continued to be led by Friedrich Ebert, was officially named the Majority Social Democratic Party of Germany (MSPD), although it was still generally referred to as the SPD.[24] The USPD demanded an immediate end to the war and a further democratisation of Germany but did not have a unified agenda for social policies. The Spartacus League, which until then had opposed a split of the party, made up the left wing of the USPD.[25] Both the USPD and the Spartacists continued their anti-war propaganda in factories, especially in armament plants.

End of the war

Russian Revolution

After the February Revolution in Russia and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II on 15 March 1917, the Russian Provisional Government, led as of 21 July 1917 by Alexander Kerensky, continued the war on the side of the Entente powers.[26] Russian society was severely strained by the opposing motivations of patriotism and anti-war sentiment. There was sizable support for continuing the war to defend Russia's honour and territory, but also a strong desire to remove Russia from the conflict and let the other countries of Europe destroy one another without Russian involvement.[citation needed]

Vladimir Lenin in 1916. Germany's help in returning him to Russia raised fears – and hopes – that Russian communists would help spark a revolution in Germany.

The German government saw a chance for victory in the situation. To support the anti-war sentiment in Russia and perhaps turn the tide in Russia toward a separate peace, it permitted the leader of the Russian Bolsheviks, Vladimir Lenin, to pass in a sealed train car from his place of exile in Switzerland through Germany, Sweden and Finland to Petrograd. Within months of his return, Lenin led the 1917 October Revolution, in which the Bolsheviks seized power from the moderates and withdrew Russia from the war. Leon Trotsky observed that the October Revolution could not have succeeded if Lenin had remained stranded in Switzerland.[27] The German government thus had an important influence in the creation of what would become the Soviet Union by putting Russia's socialist transformation decisively into the hands of the Bolsheviks, whereas in February it had been oriented toward parliamentary democracy.

In early and mid-1918, many people in both Russia and Germany expected that Russia would return the favour by helping to foster a communist revolution on German soil. European communists had long looked forward to a time when Germany, the homeland of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, would undergo such a revolution. The success of the Russian proletariat and peasantry in overthrowing their ruling classes raised fears among the German bourgeoisie that such a revolution could take place in Germany as well. The proletarian internationalism of Marx and Engels was still very influential in both Western Europe and Russia[28][page needed] and had had a sizable following among German workers for decades. There were quite a few German revolutionaries eager to see revolutionary success in Russia and have help from Russian colleagues in a German revolution.[citation needed]

The moderate SPD leadership noted that a determined and well-managed group of the Bolshevik type might try to seize power in Germany, quite possibly with Russian help, and they shifted their stance towards the Left as the end of the war approached. Otto Braun clarified the position of his party in a leading article in the Vorwärts of 15 February 1918[29] under the title "The Bolsheviks and Us" (Die Bolschewiki und Wir):

Socialism cannot be erected on bayonets and machine guns. If it is to last, it must be realised with democratic means. Therefore it is of course a necessary prerequisite that the economic and social conditions for socializing society are ripe. If this was the case in Russia, the Bolsheviks no doubt could rely on the majority of the people. As this is not the case, they established a reign of the sword that could not have been more brutal and reckless under the disgraceful regime of the Tsar.... Therefore we must draw a thick, visible dividing line between us and the Bolsheviks.[30]

In the month before Otto Braun's article appeared, another series of strikes had swept through Germany with the participation of over one million workers. During the strikes, the Revolutionary Stewards for the first time took action.[20] They were to play an important part in further developments. They called themselves "councils" (Räte) after the Russian "soviets". To weaken their influence, Friedrich Ebert, then the leader of the SPD and opposed to the strike, joined the Berlin strike leadership to try to prevent it from spreading and bring it to a speedy end.[31]

On 3 March 1918, the newly established Soviet government ended Russia's involvement in the war with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, negotiated with the Germans by Leon Trotsky. The settlement arguably contained harsher terms for the Russians than the later Treaty of Versailles would demand of the Germans.[32] The Bolsheviks' principal motivation for acceding to so many of Germany's demands was to stay in power at any cost amid the backdrop of the Russian Civil War. Lenin and Trotsky also believed at the time that all of Europe would soon see world revolution, and that bourgeois nationalistic interests as a framework to judge the treaty would become irrelevant.[citation needed]

With Russia out of the war, the German Supreme Command moved part of the eastern armies – about one million soldiers – to the Western Front.[33] It led most Germans to believe that victory in the west was at hand.[34]

Military collapse

After the victory in the east, the Supreme Army Command on 21 March 1918 launched its Spring Offensive in the west to try to turn the war decisively in Germany's favour, but by July 1918, their last reserves were used up, and Germany's military defeat became certain. The Allied forces scored numerous successive victories in the Hundred Days Offensive between August and November 1918 that cost the Germans their gains from the Spring Offensive. The arrival of large numbers of fresh troops from the United States was a decisive factor.[35]

Erich Ludendorff in 1918. His calculated shifting of responsibility for the war's loss from the army to the civilian government gave rise to the stab-in-the-back myth.

On 29 September, the Supreme Army Command, at army headquarters in Spa, Belgium, informed Emperor Wilhelm II and Imperial Chancellor Count Georg von Hertling that the military situation was hopeless. General Ludendorff said that he could not guarantee to hold the front for another 24 hours and demanded that a request be sent to the Entente powers for an immediate ceasefire. In hopes of more favourable peace terms, he also recommended the acceptance of the main demand of American president Woodrow Wilson to put the imperial government on a democratic footing. This enabled him to protect the reputation of the Imperial Army and place the responsibility for the capitulation and its consequences squarely at the feet of the democratic parties and the Reichstag.[36][37] As he said to his staff officers on 1 October:

I have asked His Majesty to bring into the government those circles to whom we mainly owe it that we have come this far. ... Let them now make the peace that must be made. They should eat the soup they have served up to us![38]

His statement marked the birth of the "stab-in-the-back myth" (Dolchstoßlegende), according to which revolutionary socialists and republican politicians had betrayed the undefeated army and turned an almost certain victory into a defeat.[39] The Army's intent to protect itself and its future by shifting the blame to civilian politicians can also be seen in the autobiography of Wilhelm Groener, Ludendorff's successor:

It was just fine with me that the Army and Army Command remained as guiltless as possible in these wretched truce negotiations from which nothing good could be expected.[40]

Political reaction

Although shocked by Ludendorff's report and the news of the defeat, the majority parties in the Reichstag, especially the SPD, were willing to take on the responsibility of government. Chancellor Hertling objected to introducing a parliamentary system and resigned. Emperor Wilhelm II then appointed Prince Maximilian of Baden as the new imperial chancellor on 3 October. The Prince was considered a liberal and at the same time a representative of the royal family. Most of the men in his cabinet were independents, but there were also two members of the SPD. The following day, the new government offered the Allies the truce that Ludendorff had demanded, and on the fifth the German public was informed of the dismal situation that it faced.[41][42]

During October, President Wilson responded to the request for a truce with three diplomatic notes. As a precondition for negotiations, he demanded the retreat of Germany from all occupied territories, the cessation of submarine activities and (implicitly) the Emperor's abdication.[43] After the third note of 24 October, which emphasized the danger to international peace inherent in the power of the "King of Prussia" and the "military authorities of the Empire",[44] General Ludendorff changed his mind and declared the Allies' conditions to be unacceptable. He demanded the resumption of the war that he had declared lost only a month earlier. After his demand was refused, he resigned[45] and was replaced as First General Quartermaster by General Groener.

On 28 October, the Reichstag passed constitutional reforms that changed Germany into a parliamentary monarchy. Peace treaties and declarations of war required the Reichstag's approval, and the chancellor and his ministers were made dependent on the confidence of the parliamentary majority rather than the emperor.[46] Because the chancellor was also responsible for all of the emperor's acts under the constitution, the emperor's military right of command (Kommandogewalt) became the chancellor's responsibility and thus subject to parliamentary control.[47] As far as the Social Democrats were concerned, the October Constitution met all the important constitutional objectives of the party.[48] Ebert regarded the fifth of October as the birthday of German democracy. Since the Emperor voluntarily ceded power, he considered a revolution unnecessary.[49]

On 5 November, the Entente Powers agreed to take up negotiations for a truce, but after the third note, many soldiers and the general population believed that the Emperor had to abdicate to achieve peace. While the request for a truce was being processed, the Allies came to realise Germany's military weakness. The German troops had come to expect the war to end and were anxious to return home. They had little willingness to fight more battles, and desertions were increasing.[citation needed]

Revolution, first stage: fall of the Empire

Sailors' revolt

Kiel mutiny: the soldiers' council of the battleship Prinzregent Luitpold. The sign reads in part "Long live the socialist republic."

While the war-weary troops and general population of Germany awaited the end of the war, the Imperial Naval Command in Kiel under Admiral Franz von Hipper and Admiral Reinhard Scheer planned to dispatch the Imperial Fleet for a last battle against the British Royal Navy in the southern North Sea. The two admirals intended to lead the military action without authorization.[50]

The naval order of 24 October 1918 and the preparations to sail triggered a mutiny among the sailors involved.[50] They had no intention of risking their lives so close to the end of the war and were convinced that the credibility of the new democratic government, engaged as it was in seeking an armistice with the Entente, would be compromised by a naval attack at such a crucial point in the negotiations.[51]

The mutiny began on a small number of ships anchored off Wilhelmshaven. Faced with the sailors' disobedience, naval command called off the offensive during the night of 29–30 October, arrested several hundred of the mutineers and had the ships return to port. On 3 November, police and soldiers confronted a protest march by the sailors towards the prison in Kiel where the mutineers were being held. The soldiers opened fire and killed at least nine protestors. The following day, workers in Kiel declared a general strike in support of the protest, and sailors from the barracks at Wik, north of Kiel, joined the march, as did many of the soldiers sent to Kiel to help control the protests.[50]

Faced with the rapidly escalating situation, Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, the naval commander in Kiel, released the imprisoned sailors and asked the protestors to send a delegation to meet with him and two representatives of the Baden government who had arrived from Berlin.[50] The sailors had a list of fourteen demands, including less harsh military punishment and full freedom of speech and the press in the Empire. One of the representatives from the Reich government, Gustav Noske of the Majority Social Democrats (SPD), calmed the immediate situation with a promise of amnesty, but by then Kiel was already in the hands of a workers' and soldiers' council, and groups of sailors had gone to nearby cities to spread the uprising.[52] Within days the revolution had spread across the western part of Germany.[50]

Spread of the revolution

By 7 November, the revolution had taken control in all large coastal cities – Lübeck, Bremen, Hamburg – and spread to Braunschweig, Cologne and as far south as Munich. There, Kurt Eisner of the radical Independent Social Democrats (USPD) was elected president of the Bavarian Workers', Peasants' and Soldiers' Council, and on 8 November he proclaimed the People's State of Bavaria.[53] King Ludwig III and his family fled Munich for Austria, where in the 12 November Anif declaration he relieved all civil servants and military personnel from their oath of loyalty to him, effectively abdicating the Wittlesbach throne.[54] By the end of the month, the dynastic rulers of all the other German states had abdicated without bloodshed.[55]

Proclamation of the Bremen Soviet Republic outside the city hall on 15 November 1918

There was little to no resistance to the establishment of the councils. Soldiers by simple acclamation often elected their most respected comrades; workers generally chose members of the local executive committees of the SPD or USPD.[56] With the support of local citizens, they freed political prisoners and occupied city halls, military facilities and train stations. The military authorities surrendered or fled, and civic officials accepted that they were under the control of the councils rather than the military and carried on with their work.[57] Little changed in the factories except for the removal of the military discipline that had prevailed during the war. Private property was not touched.[58] Max Weber was part of the workers' council of Heidelberg and was pleasantly surprised that most members were moderate German liberals. The councils took over the distribution of food, the police force, and the accommodation and provisions of the front-line soldiers who were gradually returning home.

The workers' and soldiers' councils were made up almost entirely of SPD and USPD members. Their program called for an end to the war and to the authoritarian monarchical state. Apart from the dynastic families, they deprived only the military commands of their power and privilege. There were hardly any confiscations of property or occupations of factories. The duties of the imperial civilian administration and office holders such as police, municipal administrations and courts were not curtailed or interfered with. In order to create an executive committed to the revolution and to the future of the new government, the councils for the moment took over only the supervision of the administration from the military commands that had been put in place during the war.[59]

Notably, revolutionary sentiment did not affect the eastern parts of the Empire to any considerable extent, apart from isolated instances of agitation at Breslau in Silesia and Königsberg in East Prussia.[citation needed]

Reactions in Berlin

Friedrich Ebert, who led the Majority Social Democrats through the revolution

Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the SPD, agreed with the chancellor, Prince Maximilian, that a social revolution had to be prevented and order upheld at all costs. In the restructuring of the state, Ebert wanted to win over the middle-class parties that had cooperated with the SPD in the Reichstag in 1917 as well as the old elites of the German Empire. He wanted to avoid the spectre of radicalisation of the revolution along Russian lines and was also worried that the precarious food supply situation could break down, leading to the takeover of the administration by inexperienced revolutionaries. He was certain that the SPD would be able to implement its reform plans in the future due to its parliamentary majorities.[citation needed]

Ebert did his best to act in agreement with the old powers and intended to save the monarchy. In hopes that the Emperor's departure and the establishment of a regency would save the constitutional monarchy that had been established on 28 October, the SPD called for Wilhelm's abdication on 7 November.[60] According to notes taken by Prince Maximilian, Ebert told him, "If the Emperor does not abdicate, the social revolution is unavoidable. But I do not want it, indeed I hate it like sin."[61]

Wilhelm II, still at his headquarters in Spa, was considering returning to Germany at the head of the army to quell any unrest in Berlin. Even when General Groener told him that the army no longer supported him, he did not abdicate.[62] The Chancellor planned to travel to Spa to convince Wilhelm personally of the necessity, but his plans were overtaken by the rapidly deteriorating situation in Berlin.[63]

Saturday, 9 November 1918: two proclamations of a republic

Instead of going to Spa to meet with the Emperor in person, Chancellor von Baden telephoned him on the morning of 9 November and tried to convince him to hand the throne over to a regent who would constitutionally name Ebert chancellor. After his efforts failed, Prince Maximilian, without authorization, announced to the public that the Emperor and the Crown Prince had renounced the thrones of the Empire and of the Kingdom of Prussia.[64] Immediately thereafter, following a short meeting of the cabinet, the Prince transferred the chancellorship to Friedrich Ebert, a move that was not allowed under the constitution.[65] Ebert quickly released a statement announcing the formation of a new "people's government" whose immediate tasks were to end the war as quickly as possible and to ensure a sufficient supply of food for the German people, who were still suffering under the impact of the Allied blockade. The statement ended with "Leave the streets! Keep order and peace!"[66]

The premature news of the abdication came too late to make any impression on the demonstrators. Nobody heeded the public appeals.[67] While having lunch in the Reichstag building, the SPD deputy chairman Philipp Scheidemann learned that Karl Liebknecht of the Spartacus League planned to proclaim a socialist republic. Scheidemann did not want to leave the initiative to the Spartacists and stepped out onto a balcony of the Reichstag building where he proclaimed a republic before the mass of demonstrators gathered there. Ebert, who believed that the decision about the future form of the government of Germany belonged to a national assembly of the people's democratically elected representatives, stormed angrily at Scheidemann for his spontaneous decision to announce a republic.[68] A few hours later, in the Berlin Lustgarten, Liebknecht proclaimed a socialist republic, which he reaffirmed from a balcony of the Berlin City Palace to an assembled crowd at around 4 pm.[69]

Crowds outside the Reichstag on 9 November as the creation of the republic was announced

Ebert wanted to take the sting out of the revolutionary mood and to meet the demands of the demonstrators for the unity of the labour parties. He offered the USPD equal participation in the government and was ready to accept Karl Liebknecht as a minister. The USPD, at Liebknecht's insistence, demanded that elected representatives of the unions and soldiers have full executive, legislative and judicial control. The SPD refused, and negotiations got no further that day.[70]

Around 8 pm, a group of 100 Revolutionary Stewards from the larger Berlin factories occupied the Reichstag. Led by their spokesmen Richard Müller and Emil Barth, they formed a revolutionary parliament. Most of the participating stewards had been leaders during the strikes earlier in the year. They did not trust the SPD leadership and had planned a coup for 11 November independently of the sailors' revolt, but were surprised by the revolutionary events since Kiel. In order to take the initiative from Ebert, they decided to announce elections for the following day, a Sunday. Every Berlin factory was to elect workers' councils and every regiment soldiers' councils that were then to elect a revolutionary government from members of the two labour parties (SPD and USPD) that evening. The government would be empowered to execute the resolutions of the revolutionary parliament, since they intended to replace Ebert's function as chancellor.[71]

Revolution, second stage: defeat of the radical Left

10 November: revolutionary councils elected, Armistice

On the evening of the ninth, the SPD leadership heard about the plans for the elections and the councils' meeting. Since they could not be prevented, Otto Wels used the party apparatus to influence the voting in the soldiers' councils and won most of them over to the SPD. By morning it was clear that the SPD would have the majority of the delegates on its side at the councils' meeting that evening.[72]

USPD chairman Hugo Haase returned from Kiel the morning of the 10th and was able to broker a compromise in the negotiations with the SPD about the new government. The revolutionary government, to be called the Council of the People's Deputies (Rat der Volksbeauftragten) at the USPD's insistence, gave the USPD much of what it wanted. The Council was to be made up of three representatives of the SPD (Ebert, Scheidemann and Otto Landsberg) and three from the USPD (Haase, Wilhelm Dittmann and Emil Barth).[73]

"Berlin seized by revolutionists": The New York Times on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918

In the assembly of the newly elected councils that convened in the afternoon at the Circus Busch, almost all of the soldiers' councils and a large part of the workers' representatives stood on the side of the SPD.[72] After it ratified the membership of the Council of the People's Deputies, Emil Barth called for an action committee to oversee it and presented a list of names drawn up by the Revolutionary Stewards. The proposal took the SPD leadership by surprise and started heated debates in the assembly. Ebert was able to push through an "Executive Council of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils of Greater Berlin" (Vollzugsrat des Arbeiter- und Soldatenrates Grossberlin) made up of seven SPD members, seven from the USPD and fourteen mostly independent soldiers' representatives. It was to function until the creation of a national assembly and was chaired by Richard Müller of the USPD and Brutus Molkenbuhr [de] representing the soldiers.[74][75]

On the evening of 10 November, a phone call between Ebert and General Wilhelm Groener, the new First Quartermaster General, resulted in the Ebert–Groener pact. In exchange for Groener's assurance of the army's support against radical left revolutionaries, Ebert promised Groener that the officer corps would continue to have sole command of the troops. Hindenburg remained in charge of the Army High Command.[76]

In the turmoil of the day, the Ebert government's acceptance of the Entente's harsh terms for a ceasefire, after a renewed demand from the German Army's Supreme Command, went almost unnoticed. On 11 November, the Centre Party deputy Matthias Erzberger signed the armistice agreement at Compiègne, France on behalf of the government in Berlin, and World War I came to an end.[77]

Labour unions and nationalisation: the Stinnes–Legien Agreement

Carl Legien, who represented the unions in creating the agreement that shared his name
Hugo Stinnes, one of Germany's leading industrialists

The socialists disagreed among themselves about the future economic system. Both SPD and USPD favoured socialising at least heavy industry – in the case of the SPD with a limitation to industries that were "ripe" for it.[78] The left wings of both parties and the Revolutionary Stewards wanted to go beyond that and establish a "direct democracy", with elected workers' and soldiers' delegates controlling the power from inside the industrial concerns.[79] It was not only in the interest of the SPD to prevent a council democracy; the unions also feared the councils because their supporters saw them as replacing the unions.[80]

To prevent such a development, union leader Carl Legien (SPD) met with representatives of heavy industry led by Hugo Stinnes in Berlin from 9 to 12 November. On 15 November, they signed the Stinnes–Legien Agreement, which had advantages for both sides. Employers acknowledged trade unions as the official representatives of the workforce and recognised their right to collective bargaining. The agreement also introduced the eight-hour day, allowed for the creation of workers' councils and arbitration committees in firms with more than 50 employees and guaranteed that returning soldiers would have a right to their pre-war jobs.[81] Future disputes were to be resolved through a newly created organisation called the "Central Working Group" (Zentralarbeitsgemeinschaft, or ZAG).[82]

With the agreement, the unions had achieved several of their longtime demands, and by their recognition of private enterprise, they made the efforts towards nationalising the means of production more difficult.[81]

Interim government

The Reichstag had not been summoned after the events of 9 November. The Council of the People's Deputies and the Executive Council had replaced the old government, but the administrative machinery remained the same. Civil servants from the imperial era were under the supervision of the councils but kept their positions and continued to do their work in most respects unchanged.[64]

On 12 November, the Council of People's Deputies published its government programme in the proclamation "To the German People". It lifted the state of siege and censorship, granted amnesty to all political prisoners, guaranteed freedom of association, assembly and the press and abolished the servant rules (Gesindeordnung) that governed relations between servant and master. It also promised the introduction of direct, equal and universal suffrage for all women and men from the age of 20 years, the eight-hour workday and improvements in benefits for unemployment, social insurance and workers' compensation.[83]

Karl Kautsky, a leading Marxist theorist on the Nationalisation Committee

At the insistence of the USPD representatives, the Council of People's Deputies appointed a "Nationalisation Committee" that included the Marxist theoreticians Karl Kautsky and Rudolf Hilferding, the chairman of the Socialist Miners' Union Otto Hue and a number of leading economists. The committee was to examine which industries were "fit" for nationalisation and to prepare for the nationalisation of the coal industry. It sat until 7 April 1919 without producing any tangible results.[84] "Self-Administration Bodies" were installed only in coal and potash mining.[85] From these bodies emerged the modern German Works or Factory Committees.

Through the councils, the socialists were able to establish a firm base at the local level. But while they believed that they were acting in the interest of the new order, the party leaders of the SPD regarded them as elements that threatened the peaceful changeover of power that they imagined had already taken place.[86] Along with the middle-class parties, they demanded speedy elections for a national assembly that would make the final decision on the form of the new state.[87] The position soon brought the SPD into opposition with many of the revolutionaries. It was especially the USPD that wanted to delay elections until after the achievements of the revolution had been consolidated.[87]

Although Ebert had saved the decisive position of the SPD, he was not happy with the results. He did not regard the council assembly or the Executive Council as helpful, but rather as obstacles impeding a smooth transition from the Empire to a new system of government. The entire SPD leadership mistrusted the councils rather than the old elites in the army and administration. At the same time they considerably overestimated the old elite's loyalty to the new republic. Ebert also did not like the fact that he could no longer act as chancellor in front of the OHL or his middle-class colleagues among the ministers and in the Reichstag, but only as chairman of a revolutionary government. In spite of having taken the lead of the revolution in order to halt it, conservatives saw him as a traitor.[88]

In theory, the Executive Council was the highest-ranking council of the revolutionary regime and therefore Richard Müller the head of state of the newly declared "Socialist Republic of Germany",[89] but in practice, the Council's initiative was blocked by internal power struggles. In the eight weeks of the double rule of the councils and the Ebert-led government, the latter was always dominant. Although Haase was formally co-chairman in the Council of the People's Deputies with equal rights, the higher level administration almost always preferred to work with the more moderate Ebert and the SPD.[90]

As Ebert's stance became increasingly problematic to those among the workers and soldiers who wanted the revolution to continue, the SPD leadership lost more and more of its supporters' confidence without gaining any sympathy from the opponents of the revolution on the Right.[91]

Coup attempt

On 6 December 1918, in what was likely a putsch attempt, a group of armed students and soldiers, including some members of the People's Navy Division (Volksmarinedivision), went to the Reich Chancellery and asked Friedrich Ebert to accept the office of president with nearly dictatorial powers, an offer that Ebert carefully refused.[92] At around the same time – although some sources say that it involved the same demonstrators who spoke to Ebert[92] – a group of soldiers briefly took the members of the Executive Council into custody.[93] In an unrelated incident several hours later, members of the Garde-Füsilier-Regiment, which was responsible for security in Berlin's government quarter, fired on an approved Spartacist demonstration, killing 16 and seriously wounding 12.[94][95] It is not certain who gave the order to fire or who was behind the assumed putsch.[96] The historian Heinrich August Winkler attributes it to "high-ranking officers and officials" who planned to have Ebert disband the workers' and soldiers' councils with the military's support.[92]

Ebert and the Army High Command (OHL) had agreed that troops returning from the front would parade through Berlin on 10 December. Ebert greeted them with a glowing speech that included words that would help give rise to the stab-in-the-back myth: "No enemy overcame you." General Groener had wanted to use the soldiers to disarm the civilians of Berlin and rid it of Spartacists, but the majority of the soldiers, who wanted only to return home for Christmas with their families, simply dispersed into the city. Their lack of interest in more fighting put an end to Groener's hope that he could lead the troops to domestic successes that would make the OHL the recognized force in restoring order.[92]

As a result of these events, the potential for violence and the danger of a coup from the Right became visible. Rosa Luxemburg, in the Spartacist newspaper Rote Fahne ("Red Flag"), demanded the peaceful disarmament of returning soldiers by the workers of Berlin. She wanted the soldiers' councils to be subordinated to the Revolutionary Parliament and the soldiers to be "re-educated".

Reich Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils

Reich Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils. From right to left on the ministerial bench: Emil Barth, Friedrich Ebert, Otto Landsberg and Philipp Scheidemann

The Executive Council called for a meeting of the workers' and soldiers' councils from the entire country to be held in Berlin beginning on 16 December. When the Reich Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils (Reichskongress der Arbeiter- und Soldatenräte) met in the hall of the Prussian House of Representatives, it consisted mainly of SPD followers. Not even Karl Liebknecht or Rosa Luxemburg had been chosen to attend, leaving the Spartacus League without influence. On 19 December, the Council voted 344 to 98 against the creation of a council system as a basis for a new constitution. Instead, they supported the government's decision to call for elections as soon as possible for a constituent national assembly to decide on the future state system.[97]

The Congress then approved a proposal by the SPD to give the Council of the People's Deputies lawgiving and executive power until the national assembly made a final decision on the form of government. Oversight of the Council was switched from the Berlin Executive Council to a new Central Council of the German Socialist Republic (Zentralrat der Deutschen Sozialistischen Republik). After the Congress accepted the SPD's definition of parliamentary oversight, the USPD boycotted the election to the Central Council, with the result that it had only SPD members.[98]

With the oversight of the Berlin Executive Council, the People's Deputies were to exercise military command authority and to see to the ending of militarism.[64] The Congress voted unanimously for the democratisation of the military as laid out in the Hamburg Points: there were to be no more rank insignia and no carrying of weapons when not in service; soldiers were to elect officers; soldiers' councils were to be responsible for discipline; and the standing army was to be replaced by a people's army (Volkswehr). The Army Command strongly objected to the Hamburg Points, and no trace of them was left in the Weimar Constitution.[99]

Christmas crisis of 1918

Because the newly created People's Navy Division had been helpful to the government in Kiel and was considered loyal,[100] it was ordered to Berlin in early November to help protect the city's government quarter and stationed in the Royal Stables across from the Berlin Palace. Following the coup attempt of December 6, the sailors deposed their commander because of his alleged involvement in it.[101] The government came to see the division as generally standing with the leftist revolutionaries,[102] and on 23 December, the Council of the People's Deputies ordered it out of Berlin, considerably reduced its size and refused the men their pay.[103]

Leftist soldiers during Christmas fighting in the Berlin Palace

The sailors then occupied the Reich Chancellery, cut the phone lines, put the Council of People's Representatives under house arrest, took Otto Wels hostage and physically abused him. Ebert, who was in touch with the Supreme Command in Kassel via a secret phone line, gave orders on the morning of 24 December to attack the Palace with troops loyal to the government. The sailors repelled the attack after they were joined by armed workers and the security forces of the Berlin police.[104] The government troops had to withdraw with the loss of 56 soldiers. The People's Navy Division, which counted just 11 deaths, was allowed to remain intact, and the sailors received their pay.[103]

The main result of the Christmas crisis, which the Spartacists named "Ebert's Bloody Christmas",[105] was that the USPD resigned from the government in protest on 29 December. Its three members were replaced on the Council of the People's Deputies by two from the SPD: Gustav Noske (responsible for the military) and Rudolf Wissell (labour and social affairs).[104] In light of the military's failure at the Berlin Palace, Noske ordered a strengthening of the Freikorps for use against internal enemies.[103]

Founding of the Communist Party and the January Revolt of 1919

The occupation of the Silesian railway station in Berlin by government troops

After their experiences with the SPD and the USPD, the Spartacists concluded that their goals could be met only by forming a party of their own. They therefore joined with other left-socialist groups from across Germany to found the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).[106]

Rosa Luxemburg drew up a founding programme and presented it on 31 December 1918. She wrote that the communists could never take power without the clear will of the majority of the people. On 1 January she proposed that the KPD participate in the elections for a national assembly, but a motion to boycott the elections passed 62 to 23. In the words of Marxist historian Arthur Rosenberg, the majority still implicitly hoped to gain power through "putschist adventures". After deliberations with the Spartacists, the Revolutionary Stewards decided to remain in the USPD.[107]

A new wave of violence started on 4 January when the Prussian government dismissed the chief of the Berlin police, Emil Eichhorn (USPD), for supporting the People's Navy Division during the Christmas crisis. His dismissal led the USPD, Revolutionary Stewards and KPD chairmen Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck to call for a demonstration the following day. On 5 January, as on 9 November 1918, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the centre of Berlin, many of them armed. In the afternoon, the train stations and the newspaper district with the offices of the middle-class press and Vorwärts were occupied.[64]

Spartacist militia in Berlin

The demonstrators were mainly the same people who had participated in the revolutionary actions in November. They now demanded the fulfilment of their wish for a workers' government expressed two months previously. The Spartacists by no means had a leading position in January 1919. The demands came from the workers, supported by various groups left of the SPD. The so-called "Spartacist uprising" that followed originated only partially in the KPD. KPD members were a minority among the insurgents.[108]

The initiators of the revolt, who had gathered at the Police Headquarters, elected a 53-member "Interim Revolutionary Committee" (Provisorischer Revolutionsausschuss) that failed to make use of its power and was unable to give any clear direction.[109] Liebknecht wanted the government overthrown and agreed with the majority of the committee that supported an armed struggle. Rosa Luxemburg and other KPD leaders (Leo Jogiches, Karl Radek) thought a revolt at that time to be premature and spoke out against it, although Luxemburg later gave in and followed the will of the majority of the Committee.[110]

A British Mark IV tank, captured during World War I, in use by German government troops. Berlin, January 1919

On the following day, 6 January, the Revolutionary Committee again called for a mass demonstration. This time, even more people heeded the call and filled the streets from the Siegesallee to the Alexanderplatz. But the masses were leaderless; the Committee provided no direction and no orders to act.[111] In addition, the protestors lacked support from the military. Even the People's Navy Division was unwilling to support the armed revolt and declared themselves neutral. The other regiments stationed in Berlin mostly remained loyal to the government.[112] As a result, very little happened that day.

While more troops were moving into Berlin on Ebert's order, he accepted an offer by the USPD to mediate between himself and the Revolutionary Committee, but the negotiations failed the following day. On 8 January, in an appeal to the people of Berlin, the Council of the People's Deputies stated that "Force can be fought only with force. ... The hour of reckoning approaches!"[113] The USPD and KPD leadership decided to press ahead with the revolutionary overthrow of the Ebert government, but the masses were more interested in the unification of the parties of the Left. Finally, on 11 January, Freikorps forces attacked and took the Vorwärts building with heavy weaponry.[114] Six parliamentarians who came out to negotiate a surrender were summarily shot. The remaining occupied buildings were taken the same day, and by 12 January the uprising was over.[115] The death toll was estimated at 156.[116]

The historian Eberhard Kolb calls the January Revolt the Revolution's Battle of the Marne (Germany's July 1918 battlefield defeat that led directly to the Armistice). The 1919 uprising and its brutal end caused deep divisions in the workers' movement and fuelled political radicalisation.[117]

Murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the ringleaders of the January Revolt, had to go into hiding. In spite of the urgings of their associates, they refused to leave Berlin. On the evening of 15 January 1919, the two were found in an apartment of the Wilmersdorf district of Berlin. They were immediately arrested and handed over to the largest Freikorps unit, the heavily armed Garde-Kavallerie-Schützen-Division. Its commander, Captain Waldemar Pabst, had them questioned. The same night both prisoners were clubbed with the butt of a rifle and shot in the head. Karl Liebknecht's body, without a name, was delivered to a nearby morgue. Rosa Luxemburg's body was thrown into Berlin's Landwehr Canal, where it was found only on 1 July.[118]

The perpetrators for the most part went unpunished. The Nazi Party later compensated the few who had been jailed or even tried,[119] and they merged the Gardekavallerie into the SA (Sturmabteilung). In an interview given to Der Spiegel in 1962 and in his memoirs, Pabst maintained that he had talked on the phone with Noske in the Chancellery,[120] and that Noske and Ebert had approved of his actions.[121] Pabst's statement was never confirmed, especially since neither the Reichstag nor the courts ever examined the case.

Additional revolts

Dead revolutionaries in Berlin after summary execution, March 1919

In the first months of 1919, there were additional armed revolts in parts of Germany that culminated in the Berlin March Battles. The overall cause was worker disappointment that the Revolution had not achieved the goals they had hoped for in November 1918: nationalisation of key industries, recognition of the workers' and soldiers' councils and establishment of a council republic. Attaining those goals in 1919 first required the overthrow of the Ebert government.[122] General strikes were called in Upper Silesia in January, in the Ruhr district in February[123] and in Saxony and Thuringia in February and March.

In Berlin, members of the USPD, the KPD and even the SPD called for a general strike that started on 4 March. Against the will of the strike leadership, the strikes escalated into street fighting. The Prussian state government, which had declared a state of siege, called on the Reich government for help. It responded with the deployment of both government and Freikorps troops. On 9 March, Gustav Noske, to whom executive power had been transferred, gave the order to shoot on sight anyone found carrying a weapon. By the end of the fighting on 16 March, the uprising had been bloodily quashed, with a death toll of at least 1,200.[122]

Short-lived soviet republics were proclaimed in many cities and towns into early 1919, but only those in Bavaria (Munich) and Bremen lasted longer than a few days. They were both overthrown by government and Freikorps troops with considerable loss of life: 80 in Bremen (February)[124] and about 600 in Munich (May).[125]

According to the predominant opinion of modern historians, the establishment of a Bolshevik-style council government in Germany following the war would have been all but impossible. Yet the Ebert government felt threatened by a coup from the Left and was certainly undermined by the Spartacus movement; thus it co-operated with the Supreme Command and the Freikorps. The brutal actions of the Freikorps during the various revolts estranged many left democrats from the SPD. They regarded the behaviour of Ebert, Noske and the other SPD leaders during the revolution as a betrayal of their own followers.[126]

National Assembly and new Reich constitution

On 19 January 1919, Germans voted for representatives to a constituent national assembly in an election that included women for the first time. The SPD received the highest percentage of votes (38%), and with the Catholic Centre Party and the liberal German Democratic Party, it formed the Weimar Coalition. The USPD received only 7.6% of the vote; the KPD did not participate.[127] To remove itself from the post-revolutionary confusion in Berlin, the National Assembly met in Weimar beginning on 6 February. The Assembly elected Friedrich Ebert temporary president on 11 February and Philipp Scheidemann minister president on 13 February.[128]

In addition to drawing up and approving a new constitution, the Assembly was responsible for passing urgently needed Reich laws. In May it found itself embroiled in the highly contentious issue of whether or not to accept the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Under intense pressure from the victorious Allies, it agreed on 16 June 1919 after Scheidemann resigned as minister president[129] with the words, "What hand should not wither that puts itself and us in these fetters?"[130] Gustav Bauer of the SPD took his place.

The Weimar Constitution was ratified by the National Assembly on 11 August and became effective three days later. It established a federal parliamentary republic (sometimes called a semi-presidential republic because of the strength of the presidency) with a comprehensive list of fundamental rights and a popularly elected Reichstag that was responsible for making laws, the budget and control of the executive. The government, headed by the chancellor, was dependent on the confidence of the Reichstag. The president, who was elected by popular vote for seven years, could dissolve the Reichstag and under Article 48 had the power to declare a state of emergency and issue emergency decrees when public security was threatened.[131]

In October 1922, the Reichstag lengthened Ebert's term of office until 23 June 1925.[8] He died in office a few months before then, and Paul von Hindenburg was elected the second and last president of the Republic. His use of Article 48 was instrumental in paving the way for Adolf Hitler's rise to power.[132]


From 1920 to 1923, nationalist forces continued fighting against the Weimar Republic and left-wing political opponents. In 1920, the German government was briefly overthrown in a coup organized by Wolfgang Kapp (the Kapp Putsch), and a nationalist government was briefly in power. Mass public demonstrations soon forced this regime out of power. In 1921 and 1922, Matthias Erzberger and Walter Rathenau were shot by members of the ultra-nationalist Organisation Consul. The newly formed Nazi Party, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler and supported by former German army chief Erich Ludendorff, engaged in political violence against the government and left-wing political forces as well. In 1923, in what is now known as the Beer Hall Putsch, the Nazis took control of parts of Munich, arrested the president of Bavaria, the chief of police, and others and forced them to sign an agreement in which they endorsed the Nazi takeover and its objective to overthrow the German government. The putsch came to an end when the German army and police were called in to put it down, resulting in an armed confrontation in which a number of Nazis and some police were killed.

The Weimar Republic was always under great pressure from both left-wing and right-wing extremists. The left-wing extremists accused the ruling Social Democrats of having betrayed the ideals of the workers' movement by preventing a communist revolution and unleashing the Freikorps upon the workers. Right-wing extremists were opposed to any democratic system, preferring instead an authoritarian state similar to the Empire founded in 1871. To further undermine the Republic's credibility, right-wing extremists (especially certain members of the former officer corps) used the Dolchstoßlegende to blame an alleged conspiracy of Socialists and Jews for Germany's defeat in World War I, largely drawing fuel from the fact that eight out of the ten leaders of the communist revolution were Jewish. Both sides were determined to bring down the Weimar Republic. In the end, the right-wing extremists were successful, and the Weimar Republic came to an end with the ascent of Hitler and the National Socialist Party.

Impact on Weimar Republic

The Revolution of 1918/19 is one of the most important events in the modern history of Germany, yet it is poorly embedded in the historical memory of Germans. The failure of the Weimar Republic that this revolution brought into being and the Nazi era that followed it obstructed the view of these events for a long time. To this very day, the interpretation of these events has been determined more by legends than by facts.[citation needed]

Both the radical Right and the radical Left – under different circumstances – nurtured the idea that a communist uprising was aiming to establish a soviet republic following the Russian example. The democratic centre parties, especially the SPD, were also barely interested in assessing the events which turned Germany into a republic fairly. At closer look, these events turned out to be a revolution supported by the social democrats and stopped by their party leadership. These processes helped to weaken the Weimar Republic from its very beginning.[citation needed]

After the Reich government and the Supreme Command shirked their responsibilities for the war and the defeat at an early stage, the majority parties of the Reichstag were left to cope with the resulting burdens. In his autobiography, Ludendorff's successor Groener states, "It suited me just fine, when the army and the Supreme Command remained as guiltless as possible in these wretched truce negotiations, from which nothing good could be expected".[133]

Thus, the "Myth of the Stab in the Back" was born, according to which the revolutionaries stabbed the army, "undefeated on the field", in the back and only then turned the almost secure victory into a defeat. It was mainly Ludendorff who contributed to the spread of this falsification of history to conceal his own role in the defeat. In nationalistic and national minded circles, the myth fell on fertile ground. They soon defamed the revolutionaries and even politicians like Ebert, who never wanted the revolution and had done everything to channel and contain it, as "November Criminals" (Novemberverbrecher). In 1923, Hitler and Ludendorff deliberately chose symbolic 9 November as the date of their attempted "Beer Hall Putsch".

From its very beginning, the Weimar Republic was afflicted with the stigma of the military defeat. A large part of the bourgeoisie and the old elites from big industry, landowners, military, judiciary and administration never accepted the democratic republic and hoped to get rid of it at the first opportunity. On the Left, the actions of the SPD leadership during the revolution drove many of its former adherents to the Communists. The contained revolution gave birth to a "democracy without democrats".[134]

Contemporary statements

Depending on their political standpoint of view, contemporaries had greatly differing opinions about the revolution.

Ernst Troeltsch, a Protestant theologian and philosopher, rather calmly remarked how the majority of Berlin citizens perceived 10 November:

On Sunday morning after a frightful night the morning newspapers gave a clear picture: the Emperor in Holland, the revolution victorious in most urban centres, the royals in the states abdicating. No man dead for Emperor and Empire! The continuation of duties ensured and no run on the banks! (...) Trams and subways ran as usual which is a pledge that basic needs are cared for. On all faces it could be read: Wages will continue to be paid.[135]

The liberal publicist Theodor Wolff wrote on the very day of 10 November in the newspaper Berliner Tageblatt, lending himself to far too optimistic illusions, which the SPD leadership also might have had:

Like a sudden storm, the biggest of all revolutions has toppled the imperial regime including everything that belonged to it. It can be called the greatest of all revolutions because never has a more firmly built (...) fortress been taken in this manner at the first attempt. Only one week ago, there was still a military and civil administration so deeply rooted that it seemed to have secured its dominion beyond the change of times. (...) Only yesterday morning, at least in Berlin, all this still existed. Yesterday afternoon it was all gone.[136]

The extreme Right had a completely opposite perception. On 10 November, conservative journalist Paul Baecker wrote an article in Deutsche Tageszeitung which already contained essential elements of the Stab-in-the-back myth:

The work fought for by our fathers with their precious blood – dismissed by betrayal in the ranks of our own people! Germany, yesterday still undefeated, left to the mercy of our enemies by men carrying the German name, by felony out of our own ranks broken down in guilt and shame.
The German Socialists knew that peace was at hand anyway and that it was only about holding out against the enemy for a few days or weeks in order to wrest bearable conditions from them. In this situation they raised the white flag.
This is a sin that can never be forgiven and never will be forgiven. This is treason not only against the monarchy and the army but also against the German people themselves who will have to bear the consequences in centuries of decline and of misery.[137]

In an article on the 10th anniversary of the revolution the publicist Kurt Tucholsky remarked that neither Wolff nor Baecker were right. Nevertheless, Tucholsky accused Ebert and Noske of betrayal, not of the monarchy but of the revolution. Although he wanted to regard it as only a coup d'état, he analysed the actual course of events more clearly than most of his contemporaries. In 1928 he wrote in "November Coup":

The German Revolution of 1918 took place in a hall.

The things taking place were not a revolution. There was no spiritual preparation, no leaders ready in the dark; no revolutionary goals. The mother of this revolution was the soldiers' longing to be home for Christmas. And weariness, disgust and weariness.
The possibilities that nevertheless were lying in the streets were betrayed by Ebert and his like. Fritz* Ebert, whom you cannot heighten to a personality by calling him Friedrich opposed the establishment of a republic only until he found there was a post of chairman to be had; comrade Scheidemann è tutti quanti all were would-be senior civil servants. (* Fritz is the colloquial term for Friedrich like Willy – William)
The following possibilities were left out: shattering federal states, division of landed property, revolutionary socialization of industry, reform of administrative and judiciary personnel. A republican constitution in which every sentence rescinds the next one, a revolution talking about well acquired rights of the old regime can be only laughed at.

The German Revolution is still to take place.[138]

Walter Rathenau was of a similar opinion. He called the revolution a "disappointment", a "present by chance", a "product of desperation", a "revolution by mistake". It did not deserve the name because it did "not abolish the actual mistakes" but "degenerated into a degrading clash of interests".

Not a chain was broken by the swelling of spirit and will, but a lock merely rusted through. The chain fell off and the freed stood amazed, helpless, embarrassed and needed to arm against their will. The ones sensing their advantage were the quickest.[139]

The historian and publicist Sebastian Haffner in turn came out against Tucholsky and Rathenau. He lived through the revolution in Berlin as a child and wrote 50 years later in his book about one of the myths related to the events of November 1918 that had taken root especially in the bourgeoisie:

It is often said that a true revolution in Germany in 1918 never took place. All that really happened was a breakdown. It was only the temporary weakness of the police and army in the moment of military defeat which let a mutiny of sailors appear as a revolution.
At first sight, one can see how wrong and blind this is comparing 1918 with 1945. In 1945 there really was a breakdown.
Certainly a mutiny of sailors started the revolution in 1918 but it was only a start. What made it extraordinary is that a mere sailors' mutiny triggered an earthquake which shook all of Germany; that the whole home army, the whole urban workforce and in Bavaria a part of the rural population rose up in revolt. This revolt was not just a mutiny anymore, it was a true revolution....
As in any revolution, the old order was replaced by the beginnings of a new one. It was not only destructive but also creative....
As a revolutionary achievement of masses the German November 1918 does not need to take second place to either the French July 1789 or the Russian March 1917.[140]

Historical research

During the Nazi regime, works on the Weimar Republic and the German Revolution published abroad and by exiles in the 1930s and 1940s could not be read in Germany. Around 1935, that affected the first published history of the Weimar Republic by Arthur Rosenberg. In his view the political situation at the beginning of the revolution was open: the moderate socialist and democratic-oriented work force indeed had a chance to become the actual social foundation of the republic and to drive back the conservative forces. It failed because of the wrong decisions of the SPD leadership and because of the revolutionary tactics employed by the extreme left wing of the work force.

After 1945 West German historical research on the Weimar Republic concentrated most of all on its decline. In 1951, Theodor Eschenburg mostly ignored the revolutionary beginning of the republic. In 1955, Karl Dietrich Bracher also dealt with the German Revolution from the perspective of the failed republic. Erich Eyck shows how little the revolution after 1945 was regarded as part of German history. His two-volume History of the Weimar Republic gave barely 20 pages to these events. The same can be said for Karl Dietrich Erdmann's contribution to the 8th edition of the Gebhardt Handbook for German History (Gebhardtsches Handbuch zur Deutschen Geschichte), whose viewpoint dominated the interpretation of events related to the German Revolution after 1945. According to Erdmann, 1918/19 was about the choice between "social revolution in line with forces demanding a proletarian dictatorship and parliamentary republic in line with the conservative elements like the German officer corps".[141] As most Social Democrats were forced to join up with the old elites to prevent an imminent council dictatorship, the blame for the failure of the Weimar Republic was to be put on the extreme Left, and the events of 1918/19 were successful defensive actions of democracy against Bolshevism.

This interpretation at the height of the Cold War was based on the assumption that the extreme Left was comparably strong and a real threat to the democratic development. In this point, West German researchers ironically found themselves in line with Marxist historiography in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), which attributed considerable revolutionary potential most of all to the Spartacists.[142]

While in the postwar years the majority SPD (MSPD) was cleared of its Nazi odium as "November Criminals", GDR historians blamed the SPD for "betrayal of the working class" and the USPD leadership for their incompetence. Their interpretation was mainly based on the 1958 theories of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany according to which the German Revolution was defined as a "bourgeois-democratic revolution", led in certain aspects by proletarian means and methods. The fact that a revolution by the working class in Germany never happened could be put down to the "subjective factor", especially the absence of a "Marxist-Leninist offensive party". Contrary to the official party line, Rudolf Lindau supported the theory that the German Revolution had a Socialist tendency.

Consistently, the founding of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) was declared to be the decisive turning point in German history, but in spite of ideological bias, historical research in the GDR expanded detailed knowledge of the German Revolution.[143]

During the 1950s, West German historians focused their research on the final stages of the Weimar Republic. In the 1960s, they shifted to its revolutionary beginnings, realising that the decisions and developments during the revolution were central to the failure of the first German Republic. The workers' and soldiers' councils especially moved into focus, and their previous appearance as a far-left movement had to be revised extensively. Authors like Ulrich Kluge, Eberhard Kolb and Reinhard Rürup argued that in the first weeks of the revolution the social base for a democratic redesign of society was much stronger than previously thought and that the potential of the extreme Left was actually weaker than the SPD's leadership, for example, assumed.

As "Bolshevism" posed no real threat, the scope of action for the Council of the People's Deputies (also supported by the more reform-oriented councils) to democratise the administration, military and society had been relatively large, but the SPD's leadership did not take that step because it trusted in the loyalty of the old elites and mistrusted the spontaneous mass movements in the first weeks of the revolution. The result was the resignation and radicalisation of the council movement. The theories have been supported by the publications of the minutes of the Council of the People's Deputies. Increasingly, the history of the German Revolution appeared as the history of its gradual reversal.

This new interpretation of the German Revolution gained acceptance in research rather quickly even though older perceptions remained alive. Research concerning the composition of the Worker's and Soldier's Councils which today can be easily verified by sources is undisputed to a large extent, but the interpretation of the revolutionary events based on this research has been already criticised and partially modified since the end of the 1970s. Criticism was aimed at the partially idealised description of the Workers' and Soldiers' Councils which especially was the case in the wake of the German Student Movement of the 1960s (1968). Peter von Oertzen went particularly far in this respect describing a social democracy based on councils as a positive alternative to the bourgeois republic. In comparison, Wolfgang J. Mommsen did not regard the councils as a homogeneous focused movement for democracy but as a heterogeneous group with a multitude of different motivations and goals. Jesse and Köhler even talked about the "construct of a democratic council movement". Certainly, the authors also excluded a "relapse to the positions of the 1950s: "The councils were neither communist oriented to a large extent nor can the policies of the majority SPD in every aspect be labelled fortuitous and worth praising."[144]

Heinrich August Winkler tried to find a compromise, according to which the Social Democrats depended to a limited extent on cooperation with the old elites but went considerably too far: "With more political willpower they could have changed more and preserved less."[145]

With all the differences concerning details, historical researchers agree that in the German Revolution, the chances to put the republic on a firm footing were considerably better than the dangers coming from the extreme Left. Instead, the alliance of the SPD with the old elites constituted a considerable structural problem for the Weimar Republic.[146]

See also


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  • Hoffrogge, Ralf (2014). "Working-Class Politics in the German Revolution". In Müller, Richard (ed.). The Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the Origins of the Council Movement. Leiden: Brill Publishers. ISBN 978-90-04-21921-2.
  • Sontheimer, Kurt [in German] (1962). Antidemokratisches Denken in der Weimarer Republik. Die politischen Ideen des deutschen Nationalismus zwischen 1918 und 1933 [Anti-democratic thinking in the Weimar Republic. The political ideas of German nationalism between 1918 and 1933] (in German). Munich.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)

Further reading

English language literature

German language literature

  • Max von Baden: Erinnerungen und Dokumente, Berlin u. Leipzig 1927
  • Eduard Bernstein: Die deutsche Revolution von 1918/19. Geschichte der Entstehung und ersten Arbeitsperiode der deutschen Republik. Herausgegeben und eingeleitet von Heinrich August Winkler und annotiert von Teresa Löwe. Bonn 1998, ISBN 3-8012-0272-0
  • Pierre Broué: Die Deutsche Revolution 1918–1923, in: Aufstand der Vernunft Nr. 3. Hrsg.: Der Funke e.V., Eigenverlag, Wien 2005
  • Bernt Engelmann [Wikidata]: Wir Untertanen und Eining gegen Recht und Freiheit – Ein Deutsches Anti-Geschichtsbuch. Frankfurt 1982 und 1981, ISBN 3-596-21680-X, ISBN 3-596-21838-1
  • Sebastian Haffner: Die deutsche Revolution 1918/1919 – wie war es wirklich? Ein Beitrag zur deutschen Geschichte München 1979 (ISBN 3-499-61622-X); also published under the titles Die verratene Revolution – Deutschland 1918/19 (1969), 1918/1919 – eine deutsche Revolution (1981, 1986, 1988), Der Verrat. Deutschland 1918/19 (1993, 2002), Der Verrat. 1918/1919 – als Deutschland wurde, wie es ist (1994, 1995), Die deutsche Revolution – 1918/19 (2002, 2004, 2008)
  • Gerhard Hirschfeld, Gerd Krumeich and Irina Renz, 1918. Die Deutschen zwischen Weltkrieg und Revolution. Chr. Links Verlag, Berlin 2018, ISBN 978-3-86153-990-2.
  • Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED (Hg.): Illustrierte Geschichte der deutschen Novemberrevolution 1918/1919. Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1978.
  • Mark Jones: Am Anfang war Gewalt. Die deutsche Revolution 1918/19 und der Beginn der Weimarer Republik, Propyläen, Berlin 2017, ISBN 9-783-549-07487-9
  • Wilhelm Keil [Wikidata]: Erlebnisse eines Sozialdemokraten. Zweiter Band, Stuttgart 1948
  • Harry Graf Kessler: Tagebücher 1918 bis 1937. Frankfurt am Main 1982
  • Ulrich Kluge: Soldatenräte und Revolution. Studien zur Militärpolitik in Deutschland 1918/19. Göttingen 1975, ISBN 3-525-35965-9
  • Ulrich Kluge: Die deutsche Revolution 1918/1919. Frankfurt am Main 1985, ISBN 3-518-11262-7
  • Eberhard Kolb: Die Weimarer Republik. München 2002, ISBN 3-486-49796-0
  • Ottokar Luban: Die ratlose Rosa. Die KPD-Führung im Berliner Januaraufstand 1919. Legende und Wirklichkeit. Hamburg 2001, ISBN 3-87975-960-X
  • Erich Matthias (Hrsg.): Die Regierung der Volksbeauftragten 1918/19. 2 Bände, Düsseldorf 1969 (Quellenedition)
  • Wolfgang Michalka u. Gottfried Niedhart (Hg.): Deutsche Geschichte 1918–1933. Dokumente zur Innen- und Außenpolitik, Frankfurt am Main 1992 ISBN 3-596-11250-8
  • Hans Mommsen: Die verspielte Freiheit. Der Weg der Republik von Weimar in den Untergang 1918 bis 1933. Berlin 1989, ISBN 3-548-33141-6
  • Hermann Mosler: Die Verfassung des Deutschen Reichs vom 11. August 1919, Stuttgart 1988 ISBN 3-15-006051-6
  • Carl von Ossietzky: Ein Lesebuch für unsere Zeit. Aufbau-Verlag Berlin-Weimar 1989
  • Detlev J.K. Peukert: Die Weimarer Republik. Krisenjahre der klassischen Moderne. Frankfurt am Main 1987, ISBN 3-518-11282-1
  • Gerhard A. Ritter/Susanne Miller (editors/compilers): Die deutsche Revolution 1918–1919. Dokumente. 2nd edition substantially extended and reworked, Frankfurt am Main 1983, ISBN 3-596-24300-9
  • Arthur Rosenberg: Geschichte der Weimarer Republik. Frankfurt am Main 1961 (Erstausgabe: Karlsbad 1935), ISBN 3-434-00003-8 [zeitgenössische Deutung]
  • Schulze, Hagen (1982). Weimar: Deutschland 1917–1933 [Weimar: Germany 1917–1933] (in German). Berlin: Severin und Siedler.
  • Bernd Sösemann [de; no]: Demokratie im Widerstreit. Die Weimarer Republik im Urteil der Zeitgenossen. Stuttgart 1993
  • Volker Ullrich: Die nervöse Großmacht. Aufstieg und Untergang des deutschen Kaisserreichs 1871–1918, Frankfurt am Main 1997 ISBN 3-10-086001-2
  • Richard Wiegand: "Wer hat uns verraten ..." – Die Sozialdemokratie in der Novemberrevolution. New edition: Ahriman-Verlag, Freiburg i.Br 2001, ISBN 3-89484-812-X

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