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. 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.
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. Party membership was around one million, and the party newspaper Vorwärts attracted 1.5 million subscribers. The trade unions had 2.5 million members who were affiliated with socialist unions. 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).
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. 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.
After Germany declared war on the Russian Empire on 1 August 1914, the majority of SPD newspapers, in contrast to the general enthusiasm for the war (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. 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". 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 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. 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!" The Emperor welcomed the political truce (Burgfrieden), declaring: "I no longer know parties, I know only Germans!"
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. 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.
On 2 December 1914, Liebknecht voted against additional war bonds, the only deputy of any party in the Reichstag to do so. 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:
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.
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. 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. The group emerged from a network of left-wing unionists who disagreed with the support of the war that came from the union leadership. 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. 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.
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 was known as the Majority Social Democratic Party of Germany (MSPD) and 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, made up the left wing of the USPD. Both the USPD and the Spartacists continued their anti-war propaganda in factories, especially in armament plants.
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. 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.
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. 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 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.
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 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
With Russia out of the war, the German Supreme Command moved part of the eastern armies – about one million soldiers – to the Western Front. It led most Germans to believe that victory in the west was at hand.
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.
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. 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!
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. 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.
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.
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. 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", 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 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. 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. As far as the Social Democrats were concerned, the October Constitution met all the important constitutional objectives of the party. Ebert regarded the fifth of October as the birthday of German democracy. Since the Emperor voluntarily ceded power, he considered a revolution unnecessary.
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.
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.
The naval order of 24 October 1918 and the preparations to sail triggered a mutiny among the sailors involved. 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.
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.
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. 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 (MSPD), 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. Within days the revolution had spread across the western part of Germany.
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. 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. By the end of the month, the dynastic rulers of all the other German states had abdicated without bloodshed.
The workers' and soldiers' councils were made up almost entirely of MSPD 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.
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.
Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the MSPD, 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 MSPD 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 MSPD would be able to implement its reform plans in the future due to its parliamentary majorities.
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 MSPD called for Wilhelm's abdication on 7 November. 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."
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. 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.
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. 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. 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!"
The premature news of the abdication came too late to make any impression on the demonstrators. Nobody heeded the public appeals. While having lunch in the Reichstag building, the MSPD 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. 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.
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 MSPD refused, and negotiations got no further that day.
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 MSPD 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 (MSPD 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.
On the evening of the ninth, the MSPD leadership heard of 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 MSPD. By morning it was clear that the MSPD would have the majority of the delegates on its side at the councils' meeting that evening.
USPD chairman Hugo Haase returned from Kiel Sunday morning and was able to broker a compromise in the negotiations with the MSPD about the new government that gave the USPD much of what it wanted. The revolutionary government, to be called the Council of the People's Deputies (Rat der Volksbeauftragten) at the USPD's insistence, was to be made up of three representatives of the MSPD (Ebert, Scheidemann and Otto Landsberg) and three from the USPD (Haase, Wilhelm Dittmann and Emil Barth).
In the assembly that convened on 10 November in the Circus Busch, almost all of the soldiers' councils and a large part of the workers' representatives stood on the side of the MSPD. After the assembly 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 MSPD 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 MSPD members, seven from the USPD and fourteen mostly independent representatives of the soldiers. It was to function until creation of a national assembly and was chaired by Richard Müller and Brutus Molkenbuhr.
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.
In the turmoil of the 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, and World War I came to an end.
Through the councils, the socialists were able to establish a firm base on the local level. But while they believed that they were acting in the interest of the new order, the party leaders of the MSPD regarded them as elements that threatened the peaceful changeover of power that they imagined had already taken place. 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. This soon brought the MSPD 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.
Although Ebert had saved the decisive role of the SPD, he was not happy with the results. He did not regard the Council Parliament and the Executive Council as helpful, but only as obstacles impeding a smooth transition from empire to a new system of government. The whole SPD leadership mistrusted the councils rather than the old elites in army and administration, and 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. Though he had taken the lead of the revolution only to halt it, conservatives saw him as a traitor.
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 "Reich Council Convention" in December to Berlin. In the eight weeks of double rule of councils and Reich government, the latter always was dominant. Although Haase was formally a chairman in the council with equal rights, the whole higher level administration reported only to Ebert.
The SPD worried that the revolution would end in a Council (Soviet) Republic, following the Russian example. However, the secret Ebert-Groener pact did not win over the 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.
The revolutionaries disagreed among themselves about the future economic and political 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 wildcat 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 future conflicts between employers and unions. From now on, committees together with the management were to monitor the wage settlements in every factory with more than 50 employees.
With this arrangement, the unions had achieved one of their longtime demands, but undermined all efforts for nationalising means of production and largely eliminated the councils.
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. Civil servants from the imperial era had only representatives of SPD and USPD assigned to them. These civil servants all kept their positions and continued to do their work in most respects 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" that governed 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" including Karl Kautsky, Rudolf Hilferding and Otto Hue, among others. 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 took the city administrations under their control. In addition, in Brunswick, Düsseldorf, Mülheim/Ruhr, and Zwickau, all civil servants loyal to the emperor 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 force, and the accommodation and provisions of the front-line soldiers that were gradually returning home.
Former imperial administrators and the 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 an interim solution. For them, as well as for the majority of the German 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.
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 from them the office of president with nearly dictatorial powers, an offer that Ebert carefully refused. At around the same time – although some sources say that it involved the same demonstrators who spoke to Ebert – a group of soldiers briefly took the members of the Executive Council of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils into custody. 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. It is not certain who gave the order to fire or who was behind the assumed putsch. The historian Heinrich August Winkler attributes it to "high-ranking officers and officials" who planned to have Ebert disband the workers' and soldiers' council with the military's support.
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 the troop's successes at home would make the OHL the recognized force in restoring order.
As a result of these events, the potential for violence and the danger of a coup from the right became visible. In response to the incident, 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 become "re-educated".
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 Erster Allgemeiner Kongress der Arbeiter- und Soldatenräte ("First General Convention of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils"). When the Convention met in the hall of the Prussian House of Representatives, it 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.
After 9 November, the government had ordered the newly created People's Navy Division from Kiel to Berlin to help protect the city's government quarter and stationed it in the Royal Stables across from the Berlin City Palace. The division was considered loyal, even though some members had apparently participated in the coup attempt of 6 December. The following day, the loyal sailors deposed their commander because of his involvement in the affair. The People's Navy Division had thwarted the plans of the militarist counter-revolution several times in the past but after 6 December came to be seen as an obstacle to the disarmament of revolutionary forces such as the Spartacists. Ebert demanded their disbanding and Otto Wels, as of 9 November the Commander of Berlin and in agreement with Ebert, refused the sailors' their pay.
The dispute escalated on 23 December. After having been put off for days, the sailors occupied the Reich 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 would have been expected from Spartacist revolutionaries. Instead, they just insisted on their pay. Nevertheless, Ebert, who was in touch with the Supreme Command in Kassel via a secret phone line, 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 their humiliating withdrawal, 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 restraint demonstrates that the sailors were not Spartacists, on the other that the revolution had no guidance. Even if Liebknecht had been a 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.
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, thus they joined with other left-socialist groups from the whole of Germany to found 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 the clear will of the people in the majority. On 1 January, she demanded that the KPD participate in the planned nationwide German elections, but was outvoted. The majority still hoped to gain power by continued agitation in the factories and from "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 occurred in the first days of the new year in 1919. As in the previous November,, a second revolutionary wave developed, but in this case, it was violently suppressed. The wave was started on 4 January, when the government dismissed the chief constable of Berlin, Emil Eichhorn. The latter was a member of the USPD who had refused to act against the demonstrating workers in the Christmas Crisis. This action resulted in the USPD, Revolutionary Stewards and the KPD chairmen Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck to call 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 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 ones who participated in the disturbances two months previously. 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 so-called "Spartacist Uprising" that followed 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) that 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 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 proclaimed, "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 units such as the People's Navy Division were not willing to support the armed revolt and declared themselves neutral. The other regiments stationed in Berlin mostly remained loyal to the government.
While more troops were moving into Berlin on Ebert's order, 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, an SPD leaflet appeared saying, "The hour of reckoning is nigh". With this, 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 by 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.
The alleged ringleaders of the January Revolt had to go into hiding. In spite of the urgings of their allies, they refused to leave Berlin. On the evening of 15 January 1919, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were discovered in an apartment of the Wilmersdorf district of Berlin. They were immediately 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 that ran 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, and that Noske and Ebert had approved of his actions. Pabst's statement was never confirmed, especially since neither the Reichstag nor the courts ever examined the case.
After the murders of 15 January, the political differences between the SPD and KPD grew even more irreconcilable. In the following years, both parties were unable to agree on joint action against the Nazi Party, which dramatically grew in strength as of 1930.
In the first months of 1919, there were further armed revolts all over Germany. In some states, Councils Republics were proclaimed, most prominently in Bavaria (the 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 Bremen Soviet Republic. 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 that 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 on the Reich 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. Among others, 29 members of the Peoples Navy Division, who had surrendered, were summarily executed, since Noske had ordered that anybody found armed should be shot on the spot.
The situation in Hamburg and Thuringia also was very much like a civil war. The council government to hold out the longest was the Munich Soviet Republic. It was only on 2 May that Prussian and Freikorps units from Württemberg toppled it by 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 in Germany on 9–10 November 1918 was impossible. Yet the Ebert government felt threatened by a coup from the left, and was certainly 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 regarded the behavior of Ebert, Noske and the other SPD leaders during the revolution as an outright betrayal of their own followers.
On 19 January 1919, a Constituent National Assembly (Verfassungsgebende Nationalversammlung) was elected. Aside from SPD and USPD, the Catholic Centre Party took part, and so did several middle-class parties that 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.
With 37.4% of the vote, the SPD became the strongest party in the National Assembly and secured 165 out of 423 deputies. The USPD received only 7.6% of the vote and sent 22 deputies into the parliament. The popularity of the USPD temporarily rose one more time after the Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch in 1920, but the party 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 of the elections, 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. Philipp Scheidemann was elected as Prime Minister (Ministerpräsident) of the newly formed coalition on 13 February. Ebert was then constitutionally sworn in as Reich President (Reichspräsident) on 21 August 1919.
On the one hand, the Weimar Constitution offered more possibilities for a direct democracy than the present Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, for example by setting up a mechanism for referendums. On the other hand, Article 48 granted the president the authority to rule against the majority in the Reichstag, 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 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.
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.
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.
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".
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".
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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". 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.
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.
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 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 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 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."
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."
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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