German Revolution of 1918–19
||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (November 2013)|
|Part of the aftermath of World War I and the Revolutions of 1917–23|
Soldiers posing with a captured revolutionary, May 1919
German Empire (1918)
Weimar Republic (1918-1919)
|Commanders and leaders|
| Wilhelm II
| Gustav Noske
| Rosa Luxemburg †
Kurt Eisner †
Karl Liebknecht †
Leo Jogiches †
Gustav Landauer †
Eugen Levine †
The German Revolution, or November Revolution (German: Novemberrevolution) was the politically driven civil conflict in the German Empire at the end of the First World War, which resulted in the replacement of Germany's imperial government with a republic. The revolutionary period lasted from November 1918 until the establishment in August 1919 of a republic (which later became known as the Weimar Republic).
The roots of the revolution lay in the German Empire's fate in the First World War and the social tensions which came to a head shortly thereafter. The first acts of revolution were triggered by the policy of the Supreme Command and its lack of coordination with the Naval Command which, in the face of defeat, nevertheless insisted on ordering a climactic battle with the British Royal Navy which never took place. The Wilhelmshaven mutiny (a sailors' revolt) ensued in the naval ports of Wilhelmshaven and Kiel on 29 October 1918, and the spirit of rebellion spread across the country and led to the proclamation of a republic on 9 November 1918. Shortly thereafter Emperor Wilhelm II abdicated.
The revolutionaries, inspired by socialist ideas, failed to hand power to Soviets as the Bolsheviks had done in Russia, because the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) leadership refused to work with those who supported any type of council-socialist democracy and opted for a national assembly, meaning a transition to a parliamentary system. Furthermore, fearing an all-out civil war in Germany between militant workers and the reactionary conservatives, the SPD did not plan to completely strip the old German upper classes of their power and instead sought to integrate them into the new social democratic system. In this endeavour, SPD leftists sought an alliance with the Supreme Command. This allowed the army and the Freikorps (nationalist militias) to quell the Spartacist uprising (4-15 January 1919) by force. This fragmentation of the left was a significant factor in its failure to seize power.
- 1 Background
- 2 Revolution
- 2.1 Sailors' revolt
- 2.2 Spread of revolution to the whole Empire
- 2.3 Reactions in Berlin
- 2.4 9 November 1918: Two proclamations of a republic
- 2.5 10 November: SPD leadership in opposition to revolutionary shop stewards. Armistice
- 2.6 Stinnes-Legien Agreement
- 2.7 Interim government and council movement
- 2.8 Imperial Council Convention
- 2.9 Christmas crisis
- 2.10 Founding of the Communist Party and the January Revolt
- 2.11 Murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg
- 2.12 Further revolts in tow of the revolution
- 2.13 National Assembly and New Imperial Constitution
- 3 Aftermath
- 4 Impact on Weimar Republic
- 5 Contemporary statements
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
The SPD and the World War
In the decade after 1900, the Social Democrats (SPD) were the leading force in Germany's international labour movement. With 35% of the national votes and 112 seats in the Reichstag elected in 1912, the Social Democrats had grown into the largest political party in Germany. Party membership was around one million and the party newspaper (Vorwärts) alone had 1.5 million subscribers. The trade unions had 2.5 million members, most of whom probably supported the Social Democrats. In addition, there were numerous co-operative societies (for example, apartment co-ops, shop co-ops, etc.), cultural and other associations directly linked to the SPD, to the unions, or else adhering along Social Democratic lines. Other notable parties in the Reichstag of 1912 were the Catholic Centre Party (91 seats), the Conservatives (57), the National Liberals (45) and Progressive People's Party (42), the Poles (18) and the Alsatians (9).
At the European congresses of the second Socialist International, the SPD had always agreed to resolutions asking for combined action of Socialists in case 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. After Rosa Luxemburg, representing the left wing of the party, had called for disobedience and rejection of war in the name of the entire party, the Imperial government planned to arrest the party leaders immediately at the onset of war. Friedrich Ebert, one of the two party leaders since 1913, travelled to Zürich with Otto Braun in order to save the party's funds from being confiscated.
After Germany declared war on the Russian Empire on 1 August 1914, the majority of the SPD newspapers shared the general enthusiasm for the war, particularly because they viewed the Russian Empire as the most reactionary, anti-socialist power. In the first days of August, the editors believed themselves to be in line 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 at a party convention in Essen he had 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". In the face of the general enthusiasm for the war among the population, which foresaw an attack by the Entente powers, many SPD deputies worried they might lose many of their voters with their consistent pacifism. In addition, the government of Imperial Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg threatened to outlaw all parties in case of war. On the other hand, the chancellor cleverly exploited the anti-Tsarist stance of the SPD to procure the party's approval for the war.
The party leadership and the party's deputies were split on the issue of support for the war: 96 deputies, including Friedrich Ebert, approved the war bonds demanded by the imperial government. Fourteen deputies, headed by the second party leader, Hugo Haase, spoke out against the bonds but nevertheless followed party voting instructions and raised their hands in favour.
Thus, the whole SPD faction in the Reichstag voted in favour of the war bonds on August 4. Two days earlier the Free Unions had already agreed to refrain from labour strikes and demands for higher wages for the duration of the war. It was with these decisions by the party and the unions that the full mobilisation of the German army became possible. Haase explained this decision against his will with the words: "We will not let the fatherland alone in the hour of need!" The Emperor welcomed the so-called "truce" (Burgfrieden), declaring: "Ich kenne keine Parteien mehr, ich kenne nur noch Deutsche!" ("I know no more parties, I know only Germans!").
Even Karl Liebknecht, who became one of the most outspoken opponents of the war, initially followed the party line: he abstained from voting to not defy his own political group. But a few days later he joined the Gruppe Internationale (Group International) which Rosa Luxemburg had founded on 5 August 1914 with Franz Mehring, Wilhelm Pieck, and four others from the left wing of the party, adhering to the pre-war resolutions of the SPD. From this group emerged the Spartacus League (Spartakusbund) on 1 January 1916. On 2 December 1914, becoming the only deputy of the Reichstag to do so, Liebknecht voted against further war bonds. Although he was not permitted to speak in Parliament to explain his vote, what he had planned to say was made public through the circulation of a leaflet which was claimed to be unlawful. In it, he said:
- "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."
Because of high demand, this leaflet was soon printed and evolved into the so-called "Political Letters" (German: Politische Briefe), the collections of which were later published in defiance of the censorship laws under the name "Spartacus Letters" (Spartakusbriefe). As of December 1916, these were replaced by the journal Spartakus, which appeared irregularly until November 1918.
This open opposition against the party line put Liebknecht at odds with some party members around Haase who were against the war bonds themselves. At the instigation of the SPD party leadership, in February 1915 Liebknecht was conscripted for military service in order to dispose of him — becoming the only SPD deputy to be so treated. Because of his attempts to organise objectors against the war, he was expelled from the SPD, and in June 1916, he was sentenced on a charge of high treason to four years in prison. While Liebknecht was in the army, Rosa Luxemburg wrote most of the "Spartacus Letters". After having served a prison sentence, she was put back in jail under "preventive detention" until the war ended.
Split of the SPD
As the war went on and the losses of human life rose, more SPD members began to question the adherence to the Burgfrieden (the truce in domestic politics) of 1914. Also, after the dismissal of Erich von Falkenhayn as Chief of the General Staff in 1916, the guidelines of German policy were de facto set not by the Emperor and the Chancellor but by the Supreme Army Command (German: Oberste Heeresleitung) under the generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. Although the Emperor and Hindenburg were his nominal superiors, it was Ludendorff who made the important decisions. The generals persisted with strategies aimed at achieving a military victory, pursued expansionist and aggressive war goals, and subjugated civilian life to the needs of the war and the war economy. For the labour force, this often meant 12-hour work days at minimal wages with inadequate food. The Hilfsdienstgesetz forced all men not in the armed forces to work.
After the outbreak of the Russian February Revolution in 1917, the first organised strikes erupted in German armament factories in March and April that year, with about 300,000 workers going on strike. The strike was organized by a group called Revolutionary Stewards led by their spokesman Richard Müller. The group had emerged from a network of leftwing unionists who disagreed with the union leadership´s support of the war. The United States entry into the war on 6 April 1917 threatened further deterioration. Hindenburg and Ludendorff had called for an end to the moratorium on attacks on neutral shipping in the Atlantic, which had been imposed when the Lusitania, a British ship carrying US citizens (and a large cargo of war material) was sunk off Ireland in 1915. Now the strategy was to stop the flow of US matériel to France in order to make a German victory (or a peace settlement on German terms) possible before the United States entered the war as a combatant. The Emperor tried to appease the population in his Easter address of 7 April. He promised democratic elections in Prussia, where the three-class franchise system was still in force, after the war. Nevertheless, the war continued, even if fighting on the eastern front became more sporadic as the Tsarist forces collapsed, and fighting against the Russians was then ended by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Opposition to the war among munitions workers continued to rise, and what had been a united front in favour of the war split into two sharply divided groups.
After the SPD leadership under Friedrich Ebert had excluded the opponents of the war from party ranks, the Spartacists joined with so-called "Revisionists" like Eduard Bernstein and Centrists like Karl Kautsky to found the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) under the leadership of Hugo Haase on 9 April 1917. The SPD, also called Majority Social Democrats (MSDP), continued to be led by Friedrich Ebert. 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 Spartacist League, which until then had opposed a split of the party, now made up the left wing of the USPD. Both the USPD and the Spartacists continued their anti-war propaganda in factories, especially in the armament plants.
Impact of the Russian Revolution
After the February Revolution in Russia and the toppling of the last Emperor of Russia, Nicholas II, on 15 March 1917, the Russian Provisional Government, since summer led by Alexander Kerensky, continued the war on the side of the Entente powers. Nevertheless, the German Imperial Government now saw one more chance for victory. To support the anti-war sentiment in Russia, it let the leader of the Russian Bolsheviks, Vladimir Lenin, pass in a sealed train wagon from his exile in Switzerland through Germany, Sweden and Finland to Petrograd.
In the Russian Empire, the Bolsheviks had demanded an immediate end to the war and seized power in the October 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. The moderate SPD leadership also noted that a determined and well managed group such as the Bolsheviks might well try to seize power in Germany and this determined their behavior towards the left during the German Revolution.
Otto Braun, board member of the SPD and later prime minister of Prussia, clarified the position of his party in a leading article in the SPD newspaper Vorwärts under the title "The Bolsheviks and Us":
- "Socialism cannot be erected on bayonets and machine guns. If it is to last, it must be realised with democratic means. Therefore of course it is 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 Tzar. [...] Therefore we must draw a thick, visible dividing line between us and the Bolsheviks."
In the same month (October 1918) in which Otto Braun's article appeared, another series of strikes swept through the country (January Strikes) with the participation of over 1 million workers. For the first time during these strikes, the so-called "Revolutionary Stewards" (Revolutionäre Obleute) took action. They were to play an important part in further developments. They called themselves "Councils" (Räte) after the Russian "Soviets". In order to weaken their influence, Ebert joined the Berlin strike leadership and achieved an early termination of the strike.
On 3 March 1918, the newly established Soviet government agreed to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk negotiated with the Germans by Leon Trotsky. This settlement arguably contained harsher terms for the Russians than the later Treaty of Versailles demanded of the Germans. The Supreme Command could now move part of the eastern armies to the western front. Most Germans believed that victory in the west was also at hand.
Leftist and rightist approaches to peace
After the United States had entered the war, the situation on the western front became more precarious for the Germans. For that reason, and also to take the wind out of the USPD's sails, the SPD in the Reichstag joined the "Interfractional Committee" with the Centre Party and the Progressive People's Party. In Summer 1917, these three parties passed a peace resolution providing for a peace through rapprochement without annexations and payments, as opposed to a peace through victory and annexations, as the political right was demanding. Along with everyone else in the country, the committee still believed in victory. The Supreme Army Command did not like this resolution, and in the negotiations from December 1917 to March 1918 imposed a peace by victory upon Russia.
The Supreme Command also rejected outright the "Fourteen Points" set out by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson on 8 January 1918. Wilson wanted peace on the basis of "self-determination of peoples" without victors or conquered. Hindenburg and Ludendorff rejected the offer, because, after victory over Russia, they again believed themselves to be in a stronger position. They continued to bet on a "peace through victory" with far-reaching annexations at the expense of Germany's enemies.
Request for cease fire and change of constitution
After the victory in the east the Supreme Army Command ordered the so-called Spring Offensive in the west to turn the war decisively in Germany's favour. But by July 1918 their last reserves were used up, and military defeat of Germany was sealed. Allied forces scored numerous successive victories in the Hundred Days Offensive, gaining a large swathe of territory. In mid-September, the Balkan Front collapsed. The Kingdom of Bulgaria, an ally of the German Empire and Austria-Hungary, capitulated on 27 September. The collapse of Austria-Hungary itself was now only a matter of days away.
On 29 September, the Supreme Army Command informed Emperor Wilhelm II and the Imperial Chancellor, Count Georg von Hertling, at army headquarters in Spa, Belgium that the military situation was hopeless. Ludendorff, probably fearing a breakthrough, said that he could not guarantee to hold the front for another 24 hours and demanded that a request be given to the Entente for an immediate cease fire. In addition, he recommended the acceptance of the main demand of US President Wilson to put the Imperial Government on a democratic footing, hoping for more favourable peace terms. This enabled him to save the face of the Imperial Army and put the responsibility for the capitulation and its consequences squarely in the hands of the democratic parties and the parliament. As he said to his staff officers on 1 October: "They now must lie on the bed that they have made us."
Thus the so-called "Stab-in-the-back legend" (German: Dolchstoßlegende) was born, according to which the revolutionaries had attacked the undefeated army from the rear, and turned the almost certain victory into a defeat. Ludendorff, who intended to cover up his own failure, contributed considerably to this grave distortion and falsification of history. It was very important that the Imperial Government and the German Army shirked their responsibility for defeat from the very beginning, and blamed the new democratic government. The motivation behind this is verified by the following citation in the autobiography of Groener, Ludendorff's successor:
- "It was just fine with me when Army and Army Command remained as guiltless as possible in these wretched truce negotiations, from which nothing good could be expected."
In nationalist circles, the myth fell on fertile ground. The Nationalists soon defamed the revolutionaries and even politicians like Ebert, who never wanted a revolution and did everything to prevent it, as "November Criminals" (Novemberverbrecher). The radical right did not even stop at political assassinations, e.g., Matthias Erzberger and Walter Rathenau. In Adolf Hitler's attempted coup in 1923 together with Ludendorff, they deliberately chose the heavily symbolic date of 9 November. In his later ascent to power, Hitler, who had served in the Imperial German Army as a corporal, cunningly exploited the sentiments of the homecomers who felt betrayed not only by the new democratic government but also by their commanders who had sent them to useless slaughter, especially in the Battle of Verdun.
Although shocked by Ludendorff's report and the news of the defeat, the majority parties in the Reichstag, and especially the SPD, were willing to take on the responsibility of government at the eleventh hour. As the convinced royalist Hertling objected to handing over the reins to the Reichstag, on 3 October Emperor Wilhelm II appointed Prince Maximilian of Baden as the new Imperial Chancellor. The Prince was considered a liberal yet at the same time a representative of the royal family. In his cabinet, Social Democrats took on responsibility. The most prominent and highest-ranking was Philipp Scheidemann as under-secretary without portfolio. The following day, the new government offered to the Allies the truce which Ludendorff had demanded.
It was only on 5 October that the German public was informed of the dismal situation. In the general state of shock about the defeat, which now had become obvious, the constitutional changes, formally decided by the Reichstag on 28 October, went almost unnoticed. From then on, the Imperial Chancellor and the Ministers depended on the confidence of the parliamentary majority. After the Supreme Command had passed from the Emperor to the Imperial Government, the German Empire changed from a constitutional to a parliamentary monarchy. As far as the Social Democrats were concerned, the so-called October Constitution met all the important constitutional objectives of the party. Ebert already regarded 5 October as the birthday of German democracy, after the Emperor voluntarily ceded power, and thus considered a revolution as unnecessary.
Third Wilson note and Ludendorff's dismissal
In the following three weeks, American President Woodrow 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 – in between lines[clarification needed] – the Emperor's abdication. This last was to render the process of democratisation irreversible.
After the third Wilson Note of 24 October, General Ludendorff changed his mind and declared the conditions of the Allies to be unacceptable. He now demanded the resumption of the war which he himself had declared lost only one month earlier. While this request for a truce was being processed, the Allies realised Germany's military weakness. The German troops had come to expect the war to end and were anxious to return home. They were scarcely willing to fight more battles, and desertions were on the increase.
So the Imperial Government stayed on course and replaced Ludendorff as First General Quartermaster with General Wilhelm Groener. Ludendorff fled with false papers to neutral Sweden. On 5 November, the Entente Powers agreed to take up negotiations for a truce. But after the third Wilson Note, many soldiers and the general population believed that Emperor Wilhelm II had to abdicate in order to achieve peace.
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While the war-weary troops and the population disappointed by the Kaiser's government awaited the speedy end of the war, the Imperial Naval Command in Kiel under Admiral Franz von Hipper and Admiral Reinhard Scheer planned without authorization to dispatch the fleet for a last battle against the Royal Navy in the southern North Sea.
The naval order of 24 October 1918 and the preparations to sail triggered first a mutiny among the affected sailors and then a general revolution which was to sweep aside the monarchy within a few days. The mutinous sailors had no intention of risking their lives near the end of the war, thinking it futile. They were also convinced that the credibility of the new democratic government which was seeking peace would have been compromised by a simultaneous naval attack. (However, The New York Times attributed the German Navy revolution partly to the German Navy having remained on the defensive during the war.)
The sailors' revolt started in the Schillig Roads off Wilhelmshaven, where the German fleet had anchored in expectation of battle. During the night of 29–30 October 1918 some crews refused to obey orders. Sailors on board three ships of the Third Navy Squadron refused to weigh anchor. Part of the crew of SMS Thüringen and SMS Helgoland, two battle ships of the I Battle Squadron, committed outright mutiny and sabotage. However, when a day later some torpedo boats directed their cannons onto these ships, the mutineers gave up and were led away without any resistance. But the Naval Command had to drop its plans as it was felt that the crew's loyalty could not be relied upon any more. The III Battle Squadron was ordered back to Kiel.
The squadron commander Vice-Admiral Kraft carried out a maneuver with his battleships in Heligoland Bight. This "worked perfectly" (tadellos funktionierte), and he believed that he had regained control of his crews. While moving through the Kiel Canal he had 47 of the crew of the SMS Markgraf, who were seen as the ringleaders, imprisoned. In Holtenau (the end of the canal in Kiel) they were taken to the Arrestanstalt (military prison) in Kiel and to Fort Herwarth in the north of Kiel.
The sailors and stokers were now pulling out all the stops to prevent the fleet setting sail again and to achieve the release of their comrades. Some 250 met in the evening of 1 November in the Union House in Kiel. Delegations sent to their officers, requesting the mutineers' release, were not heard. The sailors were now looking for closer ties to the unions, the USPD and the SPD. Thereupon the Union House was closed by police, leading to an even larger joint open air meeting on 2 November. Led by the sailor Karl Artelt, who worked in the torpedo workshop in Kiel-Friedrichsort, and by the mobilised shipyard worker Lothar Popp, both USPD members, the sailors called for a mass meeting the following day at the same place (Großer Exerzierplatz, large drill ground).
This call was heeded by several thousand people on the afternoon of 3 November with workers' representatives also present. The slogan "Peace and Bread" (Frieden und Brot) was raised showing that the sailors and workers demanded not only the release of the prisoners but also the end of the war and the improvement of food provisions. Eventually, the people supported Artelt's call to free the prisoners, and they moved towards the military prison. Sub-Lieutenant Steinhäuser, in order to stop the demonstrators, ordered his patrol to fire warning shots and then to shoot directly into the demonstration. Seven people were killed and 29 severely injured. Some demonstrators also opened fire. Steinhäuser was severely injured by rifle-butt blows and shots, but contrary to later statements, he was not killed. After this eruption the demonstrators as well as the patrol dispersed. Nevertheless the mass protest turned into a general revolt.
On the morning of 4 November groups of mutineers moved through the town. Sailors in a large barracks compound in a northern district of Kiel mutinied: after a divisional inspection by the commander spontaneous demonstrations took place. Karl Artelt organised the first soldiers' council, and soon many more were set up. The governor of the naval station, Wilhelm Souchon, was compelled to negotiate.
The imprisoned sailors and stokers were freed. Soldiers and workers brought public and military institutions under their control. In breach of Souchon's promise, separate troops advanced to end the rebellion, but they were intercepted by the mutineers and either sent back or decided to join the sailors and workers. By the evening of 4 November, Kiel was firmly in the hands of about 40,000 rebellious sailors, soldiers and workers, as was Wilhelmshaven two days later.
On the same evening the SPD deputy Gustav Noske arrived in Kiel and was welcomed enthusiastically, although he had orders from the new government and the SPD leadership to bring the uprising under control. He had himself elected chairman of the soldiers' council and reinstated peace and order. Some days later he took over the governor's post, while Lothar Popp of the USPD became chairman of the overall soldiers' council. During the following weeks Noske succeeded in reducing the influence of the councils in Kiel, but he could not prevent the spread of the revolution throughout Germany. The events had already spread far beyond the city limits.
Spread of revolution to the whole Empire
Around 4 November delegations of the sailors dispersed to all of the country's big cities. By 7 November the revolution had seized all large coastal cities as well as Hanover, Brunswick, Frankfurt on Main and Munich. In Munich a "Workers' and Soldiers' Council" forced the last King of Bavaria, Ludwig III, to abdicate. Bavaria was the first member state of the German Empire to be declared a Council Republic (German: Räterepublik), the Bavarian Soviet Republic, by Kurt Eisner of the USPD. In the following days the royal rulers of all the other German states abdicated; the last was Prince Günther Victor of Schwarzburg, on 23 November.
The Workers' and Soldiers' Councils were almost entirely made up of SPD and USPD members. Their program was democracy, pacifism and anti-militarism. Apart from the royal families they deprived only the hitherto almighty military commands of power. The Imperial civilian administration and office bearers such as police, municipal administrations and courts remained unscathed. There were also hardly any confiscations of property or occupation of factories because such measures were expected from the new government. In order to create an executive committed to the revolution and to the future government, the councils for the moment claimed only to take over the supervision of the administration from the military commands. Thus, the SPD was able to establish a firm base on the local level. But while the councils believed they were acting in the interest of the new order, the party leaders of the SPD regarded the councils as disturbing elements for a peaceful changeover of power,[clarification needed] which they imagined already to have taken place. Along with the middle-class parties they demanded speedy elections for a national assembly which was to make the final decision on the constitution of the new state. This soon brought the SPD into opposition with many of the revolutionaries. It was especially the USPD that took over[clarification needed] their demands, one of which was to delay elections as long as possible to try to achieve a fait accompli that met the expectations of a large part of the workforce.
Notably, revolutionary sentiment did not affect the eastern lands of the Empire to any considerable extent, apart from isolated instances of agitation in Breslau and Königsberg. Interethnic discontent among Germans and minority Poles in the eastern extremities of Silesia, long suppressed in Wilhelmine Germany, would eventually lead to the Silesian Uprisings.
Reactions in Berlin
Ebert agreed with Prince Max that a social revolution was to be prevented and that state order must be upheld at all costs. In the restructuring of the state, Ebert wanted to win over the middle-class parties, which had already cooperated with the SPD in the Reichstag in 1917, as well as the old elites of the Empire. He wanted to avoid the spectre of radicalisation of the revolution along Russian lines and he also worried that the precarious supply situation could collapse, leading to the takeover of the administration by inexperienced revolutionaries. He was certain that the SPD would be able to implement its reform plans due to its parliamentary majorities in the future.
Ebert did his best to act in agreement with the old powers, and intended to save the monarchy. In order to demonstrate some success to his followers he demanded the abdication of the Kaiser as of 6 November. But Wilhelm II, still in his headquarters in Spa, was playing for time. After the Entente had agreed to truce negotiations on that day he hoped to return to Germany at the head of the army and to quell the revolution by force.
According to notes taken by Prince Max, Ebert declared on 7 November: "If the Kaiser does not abdicate, the social revolution is unavoidable. But I do not want it, indeed I hate it like sin." (Wenn der Kaiser nicht abdankt, dann ist die soziale Revolution unvermeidlich. Ich aber will sie nicht, ja, ich hasse sie wie die Sünde.) The Chancellor planned to travel to Spa and personally convince the Kaiser of the necessity to abdicate. But this plan was overtaken by the rapidly deteriorating situation in Berlin.
9 November 1918: Two proclamations of a republic
In order to remain master of the situation, in the afternoon of 9 November Friedrich Ebert demanded the chancellorship for himself.
The news of the Kaiser's abdication came too late to make any impression on the demonstrators. Nobody heeded the public appeals. More and more demonstrators demanded the total abolition of the monarchy. Karl Liebknecht, just released from prison, had returned to Berlin and re-founded the Spartacist League the previous day. At lunch in the Reichstag the SPD deputy chairman Philipp Scheidemann learned that Liebknecht planned the proclamation of a socialist republic. Scheidemann did not want to leave the initiative to the Spartacists and without further ado stepped out onto a balcony of the Reichstag. From there he proclaimed on his own authority – and against Ebert's expressed will – a republic before a mass of demonstrating people. A few hours later the Berlin newspapers published that in the Berlin Lustgarten – at probably around the same time — Liebknecht had proclaimed a socialist republic, which he affirmed from a balcony of the Berlin Royal Residence to an assembled crowd at around 4 pm.
At that time Karl Liebknecht's intentions were little known to the public. The Spartacist League's demands of 7 October for a far-reaching restructuring of the economy, the army and the judiciary – inter alia by abolishing the death penalty — had not yet been publicised. The biggest bone of contention with the SPD was to be the Spartacists' demand for the establishment of "unalterable political facts" on the ground by social and other measures before the election of a constituent assembly, while the SPD wanted to leave the decision on the future economic system to the assembly.
Ebert was faced with a dilemma. The first proclamation he had issued on 9 November was addressed "to the citizens of Germany".
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 participation in the government and was ready to accept Liebknecht as a minister. Liebknecht in turn demanded the control of the workers' councils over the army. As USPD chairman Hugo Haase was in Kiel and the deliberations went on the USPD deputies were unable to reach a decision that day.
Neither the early announcement of the Kaiser's abdication by Prince Max and Ebert's chancellorship, nor Scheidemann's proclamation of the republic were covered by the constitution. These were all revolutionary actions by protagonists who did not want a revolution but nevertheless took action. However, a real revolutionary action took place the same evening which later proved to have been in vain.
Around 8 pm a group of 100 Revolutionary Stewards (Revolutionäre Obleute) 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 already been leaders during the January strikes. They did not trust the SPD leadership and had planned a coup independently from the sailors' revolt for 11 November but were surprised by the revolutionary events since Kiel. In order to snatch the initiative from Ebert they now decided to announce elections for the following day: on that Sunday every Berlin factory and every regiment was to elect workers' and soldiers' councils which were then in turn to elect a revolutionary government from members of the two labour parties (SPD and USPD). This Council of the People's Deputies (Rat der Volksbeauftragten) was to execute the resolutions of the revolutionary parliament as the revolutionaries intended and to replace Ebert's function as chancellor and president. 
10 November: SPD leadership in opposition to revolutionary shop stewards. Armistice
The same evening the SPD leadership heard of these plans. As the elections and the following councils' meeting could not be prevented Ebert sent speakers to all Berlin regiments and into the factories in the same night and early the following morning. They were to influence the elections in his favour and announce the intended participation of the USPD in the government.
In turn, these activities did not escape the attention of Richard Müller and the revolutionary shop stewards. Seeing that Ebert would also play the tune in the new government, they planned to propose to the assembly not only the election of a government but also the appointment of an Action Committee. This committee was to co-ordinate the activities of the Workers' and Soldiers' Councils. For this election the Stewards had already prepared a list of names on which the SPD was not represented. In this manner they hoped to install a monitoring body acceptable to them watching the government.
In the assembly that convened on 10 November in the Circus Busch the majority stood on the side of the SPD: almost all Soldiers' Councils and a large part of the workers representatives. They repeated the demand for the "Unity of the Working Class" which had been put forward by the revolutionaries the previous day and now used this motto in order to push through Ebert's line. As planned, three members of each socialist party were elected into the "Council of People's Representatives", from the USPD, their chairman Hugo Haase, the deputy Wilhelm Dittmann and Emil Barth for the Revolutionary Stewards; from the SPD Ebert, Scheidemann and the Magdeburg deputy Otto Landsberg.
The proposal by the shop stewards to additionally elect an action committee took the SPD leadership by surprise and started heated debates. Ebert finally succeeded in also having this 24-member "Executive Council of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils" equally filled with SPD and USPD members. The Executive Council was chaired by Richard Müller (USPD) and Brutus Molkenbuhr. In theory, the Executive Council was the highest-ranking council of the revolutionary regime and therefore Müller the head of state of the new declared "Socialist Republic of Germany". But in practice the council's initiative was blocked by internal power-struggles. The Executive Council decided to summon an "Imperial Council Convention" in December to Berlin.
Although Ebert had saved the decisive part of the SPD he was not happy with the results. He regarded the Council Parliament and the Executive Council not as helpful but only as an obstacle on the way to a new system of government with a smooth transition from the Empire. The whole SPD leadership mistrusted the councils rather than the old elites in army and administration. They considerably overestimated the old elite's loyalty to the new republic. What troubled Ebert most was that he could not now act as Chancellor in front of the Councils, but only as chairman of a revolutionary government. Indeed, conservatives regarded him as a traitor, though he had taken the lead of the revolution simply in order to halt it.
In the eight weeks of double rule of Councils and Imperial Government the latter always was dominant. The whole higher level administration reported only to Ebert, although Haase formally was a chairman in the Council with equal rights. Concerning the question of real power, there was a phone call on the evening of 10 November between Ebert and General Wilhelm Groener, the new First General Quartermaster in Spa, Belgium. Assuring Ebert of the support of the Army, the General was given Ebert's promise to reinstate the military hierarchy and, with the help of the army, to take action against the Councils.
Behind the secret Ebert-Groener pact stood the SPD's worry that the revolution could end in a Council (Soviet) Republic following the Russian example. However, this pact was not able to win over the Imperial Officer Corps for the republic. As Ebert's behaviour became increasingly puzzling to the revolutionary workers, the soldiers and their stewards, the SPD leadership lost more and more of their supporters' confidence, without gaining any sympathies from the opponents of the revolution on the right.
In the turmoil of this day, the Ebert government's acceptance of the harsh terms of the Entente for a truce, after a renewed demand by the Supreme Command, went almost unnoticed. On 11 November, the Centre Party deputy Matthias Erzberger, on behalf of Berlin, signed the armistice agreement in Compiègne, France. Thus, World War I had come to an end.
The revolutionaries disagreed among themselves about the future economic and state system. Both SPD and USPD favoured placing at least heavy industry under democratic control. The left wings of both parties and the Revolutionary Stewards wanted to go beyond that and establish a "direct democracy" in the production sector, with elected delegates controlling the political power. It was not only in the interest of the SPD to prevent a Council Democracy, even the unions would have been rendered superfluous by the councils.
To prevent this development, the union leaders under Carl Legien and the representatives of big industry under Hugo Stinnes and Carl Friedrich von Siemens met in Berlin from 9 to 12 November. On 15 November they signed an agreement with advantages for both sides: the union representatives promised to guarantee orderly production, to end wild strikes, to drive back the influence of the councils and to prevent a nationalisation of means of production. For their part, the employers guaranteed to introduce the eight-hour day, which the workers had demanded in vain for years. The employers agreed to the union claim of sole representation and to the lasting recognition of the unions instead of the Councils. Both parties formed a "Central Committee for the Maintenance of the Economy" (Zentralausschuss für die Aufrechterhaltung der Wirtschaft).
An "Arbitration Committee" (Schlichtungsausschuss) was to mediate in future conflicts between employers and unions. From now on, in every factory with more than 50 employees committees together with the management were to monitor the keeping to the wage settlements.
With this, the unions had achieved one of their longtime demands but undermined all efforts for nationalising means of production and largely eliminated the Councils.
Interim government and council movement
The Reichstag had not been summoned since 9 November. The Council of the People's Deputies and the Executive Council had replaced the old government. But the previous administrative machinery remained unchanged. Imperial servants had only representatives of SPD and USPD assigned to them. These servants all kept their positions and continued to do their work in most parts unchanged.
On 12 November the Council of People's Representatives published its democratic and social government programme. It lifted the state of siege and censorship, abolished the "Gesindeordnung" (Servant Rules: rules governing relations between servant and master) and introduced universal suffrage from 20 years up, for the first time for women. There was an amnesty for all political prisoners. Regulations for the freedom of association, assembly and press were enacted. The eight-hour day became statutory on the basis of the Stinnes-Legien Agreement, and benefits for unemployment, social insurance, and workers' compensation were expanded.
At the insistence of USPD representatives the Council of People's Representatives appointed a "Nationalisation Committee", among others with Karl Kautsky, Rudolf Hilferding and Otto Hue. This committee was to examine which industries were "fit" for nationalisation and to prepare the nationalisation of the coal and steel industry. It sat until 7 April 1919, without any tangible result. "Self-Administration Bodies" were installed only in coal and potash mining and in the steel industry. From these bodies emerged the modern German Works or Factory Committees. Socialist expropriations were not initiated.
The SPD leadership worked with the old administration rather than with the new Workers' and Soldiers' Councils, because it considered them incapable of properly supplying the needs of the population. As of mid-November this caused continuing strife with the Executive Council. As the Council continuously changed its position following whoever it just happened to represent, Ebert withdrew more and more responsibilities planning to end the "meddling and interfering" of the Councils in Germany for good. But Ebert and the SPD leadership by far overestimated the power not only of the Council Movement but also of the Spartacist League. The Spartacist League, for example, never had control over the Council Movement as the conservatives and parts of the SPD believed.
In Leipzig, Hamburg, Bremen, Chemnitz and Gotha the Workers' and Soldiers' Councils put the city administrations under their control. In addition, in Brunswick, Düsseldorf, Mülheim/Ruhr and Zwickau all civil servants loyal to the Kaiser were arrested. In Hamburg and Bremen "Red Guards" were formed that were to protect the revolution. The Councils deposed the management of the Leuna Works, a giant chemical factory near Merseburg. The new Councils were often appointed spontaneously and arbitrarily and had no management experience whatsoever. But a majority of Councils came to arrangements with the old administrations and saw to it that law and order were quickly restored. For example, 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 and the accommodation and provisions of the front-line soldiers that were gradually returning home.
Administration and Councils depended on each other: the former had the knowledge and experience, the latter had political clout. In most cases SPD-members had been elected into the Councils who regarded their job as interim solution. For them as well as for the majority of the population in 1918/19 the introduction of a Council Republic was never an issue, but they were not even given a chance to think about it. Many wanted to support the new government and expected it to abolish militarism and the authoritarian state. Being weary of the war and hoping for a peaceful solution, they partially overestimated the revolutionary achievements.
Imperial Council Convention
As decided by the Executive Committee the Workers' and Soldiers' Councils in the whole Empire sent deputies to Berlin who were to convene on 16 December in the Circus Busch for the "First General Convention of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils" (Erster Allgemeiner Kongress der Arbeiter- und Soldatenräte). On 15 December Ebert and General Groener had troops ordered to Berlin to prevent this convention and to regain control of the capital. On 16 December one of the regiments intended for this plan advanced too early. In the attempt to arrest the Executive Council the soldiers opened fire on a demonstration of unarmed "Red Guards" which were Soldiers' Councils affiliated with the Spartacists, and killed 16 people.
With this the potential for violence and the danger of a coup from the right already became visible. Because of this experience, in the daily newspaper of the Spartacist League "Red Flag" (Rote Fahne) of 12 December, Rosa Luxemburg demanded the peaceful disarmament of the homecoming military units by the Berlin workforce. She wanted the Soldiers' Councils to be subordinated to the Revolutionary Parliament and the soldiers to become "re-educated".
On 10 December Ebert welcomed ten divisions returning from the front hoping to use them against the Councils. As it turned out, these troops also were not willing to go on fighting. The war was over, Christmas was at the door and most of the soldiers just wanted to go home to their families. So shortly after their arrival in Berlin they dispersed. The blow against the Convention of Councils did not take place.
This blow would have been unnecessary anyway because the convention that took up its work 16 December in the Prussian House of Representatives also consisted mainly of SPD followers. Not even Karl Liebknecht had managed to get a seat. The Spartacist League was not granted any influence. On 19 December the Councils 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 for a constituent national assembly as soon as possible. This assembly was to decide upon the state system.
The Convention disagreed with Ebert only on the issue of control of the army. The Convention was demanding a say for the Central Council which it would elect, in the supreme command of the army, the free election of officers and the disciplinary powers for the Soldiers' Councils. That would have been contrary to the agreement between Ebert and General Groener. They both spared no effort to undo this decision. The Supreme Command which in the meantime had moved from Spa to Kassel, began to raise loyal volunteer corps (Freikorps) against the supposed Bolshevik menace. Unlike the revolutionary soldiers of November, these troops were monarchist-minded officers and men who feared the return into civil life.
After 9 November the government ordered the newly created People's Navy Division (German: Volksmarinedivision) from Kiel to Berlin for its protection and stationed it in the Royal Stables (German: Neuer Marstell) across from the Imperial City Residence. The Division was considered absolutely loyal and had indeed refused to participate in the coup attempt of 6 December. The sailors even deposed their commander because they saw him as involved in the affair. It was this loyalty that now gave them the reputation of being in favor of the Spartacists. Ebert demanded their disbanding and Otto Wels, as of 9 November the Commander of Berlin and in line with Ebert, refused the sailors' pay.
The dispute escalated on 23 December. After having been put off for days the sailors occupied the Imperial Chancellery itself, cut the phone lines, put the Council of People's Representatives under house arrest and captured Otto Wels. The sailors did not exploit the situation to eliminate the Ebert government, as could have been expected from Spartacist revolutionaries. Instead, they just insisted on their pay. Nevertheless, Ebert, who via a secret phone line was in touch with the Supreme Command in Kassel, gave orders to attack the Residence with troops loyal to the government on the morning of 24 December. The sailors repelled the attack under their commander Heinrich Dorrenbach, losing about 30 men and civilians in the fight. The government troops had to withdraw from the center of Berlin. They themselves were now disbanded and integrated into the newly formed Freikorps. To make up for the loss of face they temporarily occupied the editor's offices of the "Red Flag". But military power in Berlin once more was in the hands of the People's Navy Division. Again, the sailors did not take advantage of the situation.
On one side this shows that the sailors were not Spartacists, on the other that the revolution had no guidance. Even if Liebknecht had been the revolutionary leader like Lenin, to which legend later made him, the sailors as well as the Councils would not have accepted him as such. Thus the only result of the Christmas Crisis, which the Spartacists named "Ebert's Bloody Christmas", was that the Revolutionary Stewards called for a demonstration on Christmas Day and the USPD left the government in protest on 29 December. They could not have done Ebert a bigger favor since he had let them participate only under the pressure of revolutionary events. Within a few days the military defeat of the Ebert government had turned into a political victory.
Founding of the Communist Party and the January Revolt
The Spartacists concluded after their experiences with the SPD and the USPD that their goals could be met only in a party of their own. Also because of the unhappiness of many workers with the course of the revolution and joined by other left-socialist groups of the whole Empire they founded the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).
Rosa Luxemburg drew up her founding programme and presented it on 31 December 1918. In this programme she pointed out that the communists could never take power without a clear will of the people in the majority. On 1 January she again demanded that the KPD participate in the planned elections but was outvoted. The majority still hoped to gain power by continued agitation in the factories and by the "pressure from the streets". After deliberations with the Spartacists the Revolutionary Stewards decided to remain in the USPD. This was a first defeat.
The decisive defeat of the left was to be brought in the first days of the new year in 1919. As in November before, almost spontaneously, a second revolutionary wave developed which, this time, was violently suppressed. The wave was started when on 4 January the government dismissed the chief constable of Berlin, Emil Eichhorn, who was a member of the USPD and who had refused to act against the demonstrating workers in the Christmas Crisis resulting in the USPD, Revolutionary Stewards and the KPD chairmen Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck Eichhorn's calling for a demonstration to take place on the following day.
To the surprise of the initiators the demonstration turned into an assembly of huge masses. On Sunday 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 the "Vorwärts" were occupied. Some of the middle-class papers in the previous days had called not only for the raising of more Freikorps but also for the murder of the Spartacists.
The demonstrators were mainly the same as two months previous. They now demanded the fulfillment of the hopes expressed in November. The Spartacists by no means had a leading position. The demands came straight from the workforce supported by various groups left of the SPD. The following so-called "Spartacist Uprising" originated only partially in the KPD. KPD members were even a minority among the insurgents.
The initiators assembled at the Police Headquarters elected a 53-member "Interim Revolutionary Committee" (Provisorischer Revolutionsausschuss) which failed to make use of its power and was unable to give any clear direction. Liebknecht demanded the overthrow of the government and agreed with the majority of the committee that propagated the armed struggle. Rosa Luxemburg as well as the majority of KPD leaders thought a revolt at this moment to be a catastrophe and explicitly spoke out against it.
On the following day, 6 January, the Revolutionary Committee again called for a mass demonstration. This time even more people heeded the call. Again they carried placards and banners that said: "Brothers, don't shoot!" and remained waiting on an assembly square. A part of the Revolutionary Stewards armed themselves and called for the overthrow of the Ebert government. But the KPD-activists mostly failed in their endeavour to win over the troops. It turned out that even the units like the People's Navy Division were not willing to support the armed revolt, declaring itself neutral. The other regiments stationed in Berlin mostly remained loyal to the government.
While on Ebert's orders more troops were moving into Berlin, he accepted an offer by the USPD to mediate between him and the Revolutionary Committee. After the advance of the troops into the city became known and an SPD leaflet appeared saying: "The hour of reckoning is nigh" the Committee broke off further negotiations on 8 January. That was opportunity enough for Ebert to use the troops stationed in Berlin against the occupiers. Beginning 9 January they violently quelled an improvised revolt. In addition to that, on 12 January, the anti-republican Freikorps, which had been raised more or less as death squads since the beginning of December, moved into Berlin. Gustav Noske, who had been People's Representative for Army and Navy for a few days, accepted the premium command of these troops saying: "If you like, someone has to be the bloodhound. I won't shy away from the responsibility."
The Freikorps brutally cleared several buildings and executed the occupiers on the spot. Others soon surrendered, but some of them were still shot. The January revolt claimed 156 lives in Berlin.
Murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg
The alleged ringleaders of the January Revolt had to go into hiding and in spite of being urged by their Allies refused to leave Berlin. On the evening of 15 January 1919 Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were discovered in a Berlin-Wilmersdorf apartment, arrested and handed over to the largest Freikorps, the heavily armed Garde-Kavallerie-Schützen-Division. Their commander, Captain Waldemar Pabst, had them questioned. That same night both prisoners were beaten unconscious with rifle butts and shot in the head. Rosa Luxemburg's body was thrown into the Landwehr Canal running through Berlin, where it was found only on 1 July. Karl Liebknecht's body, without a name, was delivered to a morgue.
The perpetrators for the most part went unpunished. The Nazi Party later compensated the few that had been tried or even jailed, 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. Noske and Ebert had approved of his actions. Pabst's statement was never confirmed, especially since neither parliament nor the courts had examined the case.
After the murders of 15 January the opposition between SPD and KPD grew even more irreconcilable. In the following years in the Weimar Republic, both parties could not decide on joint action against the Nazi Party which was growing in strength as of 1930.
Further revolts in tow of the revolution
In the first months of 1919 there were further armed revolts all over Germany. In some states Councils Republics were proclaimed and existed, most prominently in Bavaria (Munich Soviet Republic), even if only temporarily.
These revolts were triggered by Noske's decision at the end of February to take armed action against the Council Republic of Bremen. In spite of an offer to negotiate he ordered his Freikorps units to invade the city. Approximately 400 people were killed in the ensuing fights.
This caused an eruption of mass strikes in the Ruhr District, the Rhineland and in Saxony. Members of the USPD, the KPD and even the SPD called for a general strike which started on 4 March. Against the will of the strike leadership the strikes escalated into street fighting in Berlin. The Prussian state government, which in the meantime had declared a state of siege, called the Imperial government for help. Again Noske employed the Gardekavallerie-Schützendivision commanded by Pabst against the strikers in Berlin. By the end of the fighting on 16 March they had killed approximately 1,200 people, many of them unarmed and uninvolved. Amongst others 29 members of the Peoples Navy Division, who had surrendered, were arbitrarily executed as Noske had ordered anybody found armed to be shot on the spot.
The situation in Hamburg and Thuringia also was very much like a civil war. The Council Government holding out the longest was the Munich Soviet Republic. It was only on 2 May that Prussian and Wurttemberg Freikorps units put an end using the same violent methods as in Berlin and Bremen.
According to the predominant opinion of modern historians the establishment of a Bolshevik-style council government on 9–10 November was impossible. Yet the Ebert Government felt threatened by a coup from the left, and certainly generally undermined by the Spartakus 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, especially of course the USPD and the KPD, regard Ebert's, Noske's and the other SPD leaders' behaviour during the revolution as outright betrayal against their own followers.
National Assembly and New Imperial Constitution
On 19 January a Constituent National Assembly (Verfassungsgebende Nationalversammlung) was elected. Aside from SPD and USPD, the catholic Centre Party and several middle-class parties took part, which had established themselves since November: the left-liberal German Democratic Party (DDP), the national-liberal German People's Party (DVP) and the conservative, nationalist German National People's Party (DNVP). In spite of Rosa Luxemburg's recommendation, the KPD did not participate in these elections.
The SPD became the strongest party in the Reichstag with 37.4% and 165 out of 423 deputies. The USPD received only 7.6% and sent 22 deputies into the parliament. The rating of the USPD temporarily went up one more time after the Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch in 1920 but the party then dissolved in 1922. The Centre Party was runner-up to the SPD with 91 deputies, the DDP had 75, the DVP 19 and the DNVP 44. As a result, the SPD formed the so-called Weimar Coalition with the Centre Party and the DDP. To get away from the post-revolutionary confusion in Berlin the National Assembly met on 6 February in the town of Weimar, Thuringia, some 250 km to the southwest of Berlin, where Friedrich Ebert was elected temporary Reich President on 11 February and Philipp Scheidemann was elected as Prime Minister (Ministerpräsident) of the newly formed coalition on 13 February. Ebert was then constitutionally sworn in as President (Reichspräsident) on 21 August 1919.
On the one hand, the Weimar Constitution offered more possibilities of a direct democracy than the present German constitution, like for instance a referendum. On the other hand, Article 48 granted the President the authority to rule against the majority in the Parliament, with the help of the army if need be. In 1932–33, article 48 was instrumental in destroying German democracy.
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 by a coup by Wolfgang Kapp in the Kapp Putsch and a nationalist government was briefly in power, until mass public demonstrations forced the short-lived 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, arresting the President of Bavaria, the chief of police, and others and forcing 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 where a number of Nazis and some police were killed.
The Republic was 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 an authoritarian state like 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. 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 Nazi Party.
Impact on Weimar Republic
The Revolution of 1918/19 is one of the most important events in the later history of Germany, yet it is poorly embedded in the historical memory of Germans. The failure of the Weimar Republic which this revolution brought into being and the following Nazi-era have 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.
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 fairly assessing the events which turned Germany into a Republic. At closer look these events turn 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.
After the Imperial 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".
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 turning 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 Ludendorf deliberately chose symbolic 9 November as the date of their attempted "Beer Hall Putsch".
From its very beginning the 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, but intended to get rid of the new type of state 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".
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 Kaiser in Holland, the revolution victorious in most urban centres, the royals in the states abdicating. No man dead for Kaiser 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."
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."
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 legend:
- "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."
In an article on the 10th anniversary of the revolution the publicist Kurt Tucholsky remarked that neither Wolff nor Baecker were right. Nevertheless Tucholsky did accuse 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."
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 this 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."
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 Der Verrat (The Betrayal) about one of the myths around the events of November 1918 which 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."
During the Nazi regime, works on the Weimar Republic and the German Revolution published abroad and by emigrants in the 1930s and 1940s could not be read in Germany. Around 1935 this 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. On one hand this failed because of the wrong decisions of the SPD leadership, on the other 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 ignored the revolutionary beginning of the republic to a great extent. 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. In his two volume History of the Weimar Republic he barely dedicated 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 the events around 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". As the majority 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. According to this view, the events of 1918/19 were successful defensive actions of democracy against Bolshevism.
This interpretation at the height of the Cold War is 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. While in the post war 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 can 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.
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, realizing that the decisions and developments during the revolution were central to the failure of the first German Republic. Especially the Workers' and Soldiers' Councils moved into focus, and their previous appearance as a far left-wing movement had to be revised extensively. Authors like Ulrich Kluge, Eberhard Kolb, Reinhard Rürup and others 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 MSPD'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 consistently democratise the administration, military and society had been relatively large. But the MSPD'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 of this was the resignation and radicalisation of the council movement. These 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 homogenous 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 these 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."
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 further than necessary: "With more political willpower they could have changed more and preserved less." 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.
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- Ralf Hoffrogge, Working-Class Politics in the German Revolution. Richard Müller, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the Origins of the Council Movement, Brill Publications 2014, ISBN 978-9-00421-921-2, pp. 93-100.
- Ullrich, Die nervöse Großmacht p. 446
- Manfred Scharrer (verdi): Das patriotische Bekenntnis
- Sebastian Haffner, Der Verrat p. 12
- Ralf Hoffrogge, Working-Class Politics in the German Revolution. Richard Müller, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the Origins of the Council Movement, Brill Publications 2014, ISBN 978-9-00421-921-2, pp. 35-61.
- Winkler, Der lange Weg nach Westen, Beck Verlag Munich, 2000, p. 362
- Schulze, Weimar. Germany 1917–1933, p. 158
- Haffner, Der Verrat p. 32f.
- Schulze, Weimar. Deutschland 1917–1933 p. 149
- New York Times, 26 May 1941, p. 7
- See Hauptkrankenbuch Festungslazarett Kiel, Nr. 15918, Krankenbuchlager Berlin, zit. bei Dirk, Dähnhardt, Revolution in Kiel. p. 66.
- v. Baden: Erinnerungen und Dokumente p. 599 f.
- Ralf Hoffrogge, Working-Class Politics in the German Revolution. Richard Müller, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the Origins of the Council Movement, Brill Publications 2014, pp. 61-79pp.
- See: Ralf Hoffrogge, From Unionism to Workers’ Councils – The Revolutionary Shop Stewards in Germany 1914–1918, in: Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini(Eds): Ours to Master and to Own: Worker´s Control from the Commune to the Present, Chicago 2011
- Winkler, Weimar p. 55 f.
- Winkler, Weimar p. 58
- Der Spiegel of 18.04.1962
- Schulze, Weimar. Deutschland 1917–1933 S. 169 u. 170
- Mosler: Die Verfassung des Deutschen Reichs vom 11. August 1919
- Sontheimer, Antidemokratisches Denken
- Haffner, Der Verrat p. 85
- Haffner, Der Verrat p. 95
- Haffner, Der Verrat p. 96
- Kurt Tucholsky: Gesammelte Werke (Collected Works), Vol. 6, p. 300
- Sösemann, Demokratie im Widerstreit, p.13
- Haffner, Der Verrat p. 193 f.
- Kluge, Deutsche Revolution 1918/19, p. 15
- On East German historiography of the German Revolution see Mario Keßler: Die Novemberrevolution in der Geschichtswissenschaft der DDR – Die Kontroversen des Jahres 1958 und ihre Folgen im internationalen Kontext, in: Jahrbuch für Forschungen zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung, No. III/2008.
- Eberhard Kolb: Die Weimarer Republik. Wien, 1984. p. 154f
- Kolb, op. cit. p. 160f
- Kolb, op. cit. p. 161
- Kolb, op.cit. pp. 143–162; Kluge, Deutsche Revolution pp. 10–38
English language literature:
- Broue, Pierre (2006). The German Revolution 1917–1923. Haymarket Books. ISDN 1931859329.
- Chris Harman The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918–1923. Bookmarks. 1982. ISDN 090622408X.
- Coper, Rudolf (1955). Failure of a Revolution Germany in 1918–1919. Cambridge University Press.
- Paul Frolich: Rosa Luxemburg – Her Life and Work, Hesperides Press, ISBN 1-4067-9808-8
- Ralf Hoffrogge: Working-Class Politics in the German Revolution, Richard Müller, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the Origins of the Council Movement, Brill Publishers, Leiden 2014, ISBN 9789004219212.
- Ralf Hoffrogge: From Unionism to Workers’ Councils - The Revolutionary Shop Stewards in Germany 1914–1918, in: Immanuel Ness, Dario Azzellini (Ed): Ours to Master and to Own: Worker´s Control from the Commune to the Present, Haymarket Books Chicago 2011.
- Richard M. Watt: The Kings Depart: The Tragedy of Germany – Versailles and the German Revolution, Simon and Schuster 1968, ISBN 1-84212-658-X
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: 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)
- Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED (Hg.): Illustrierte Geschichte der deutschen Novemberrevolution 1918/1919. Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1978.
- Wilhelm Keil: 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 (Hg.): Die deutsche Revolution 1918–1919. Dokumente. 2. erheblich erweiterte und überarbeitete Auflage, 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]
- Hagen Schulze: Weimar. Deutschland 1917–1933, Berlin 1982
- Bernd Sösemann: Demokratie im Widerstreit. Die Weimarer Republik im Urteil der Zeitgenossen. Stuttgart 1993
- Kurt Sontheimer: Antidemokratisches Denken in der Weimarer Republik. Die politischen Ideen des deutschen Nationalismus zwischen 1918 und 1933, München 1962
- 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. Neuauflage: Ahriman-Verlag, Freiburg i.Br 2001, ISBN 3-89484-812-X
- Heinrich August Winkler: Weimar 1918–1933. München 1993
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