German Revolution of 1918–19

German Revolution of 1918–19

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=German Revolution of 1918-19

caption=A Freikorps group during the German revolution.
date=November 1918 – 1919
result=Weimar Republic government victory
combatant1=Spartacists|combatant2=Weimar Republic|combatant3= Freikorps
commander1=flagicon image|Red flag.svg Karl Liebknecht
flagicon image|Red flag.svg Rosa Luxembourg
flagicon image|Red flag.svg Kurt Eisner
commander2=flagicon|Weimar Republic Friedrich Ebert
commander3=flagicon|German Empire Franz Ritter von Epp
flagicon|German Empire Hermann Ehrhardt

The German Revolution (German: Novemberrevolution) is a term used to describe the politically-driven civil conflict in Germany following the abdication of the German Emperor at the end of World War I. The period lasted from November 1918 until the formal establishment of the so-called Weimar Republic in August 1919. There was significant violence between the three major factions, including the far-left, which wished to overthrow the German government and establish a socialist republic; nationalists, who opposed the far left and the new republic's government; and the government, led by the Social Democratic Party of Germany, which opposed both the communist and nationalist factions.

The roots of the revolution can be found in the social tensions of the German Empire, its undemocratic constitution and the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to reform. The revolution was triggered by the policy of the Supreme Command and the decision of the Naval Command in the face of an already definite defeat to deliver one last battle to the British Royal Navy. The Sailor’s Revolt which then ensued in the naval ports of Wilhelmshaven and Kiel spread across the whole country within days and led to the proclamation of a republic on 9 November 1918 and shortly after to the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Further reaching goals of the revolutionaries inspired by socialist ideas failed because of the resistance of the SPD-Leadership in January 1919. Fearing an all-out civil war they, in line with the middle-class parties, did not have in mind to completely strip the old imperial elites of their power. Instead they sought to reconcile them with the new democratic conditions. In this endeavour they sought an alliance with the Supreme Command and had the army and Freikorps (nationalist militias) quell the so-called ”Spartakist uprising” by force.

From 1920 to 1923, nationalist factions attempted to overthrow the Weimar Republic beginning with the Kapp Putsch in 1920 and ending with the Beer Hall Putsch by the Nazi Party in 1923.

The violence decreased substantially by 1923 and the revolution is seen to have ended at that point.


The German Empire and the Social Democrats

The German Revolutions of 1848 failed particularly because they attempted to create democratization and national unity simultaneously. In the following decades, the majority of Germans more or less came to terms with the authoritarian state, especially after a partial national unity ("Kleindeutschland") had been achieved under Prussian leadership in 1871.

The newly created German Empire was a constitutional monarchy. The members of the Reichstag were elected democratically, but the parliament had very little influence on imperial politics. The Imperial Government was not responsible to the parliament but only to the Kaiser. Proposed laws needed the approval of the Bundesrat (Upper House) and the Kaiser, who in turn could dissolve the Reichstag at any time and call for new elections. The Reichstag's only important authority lay in the approval of the state budget except its biggest item: military expenditure. [Volker Ullrich, "Die nervöse Großmacht" p. 36] .

The Social Democrats, joining to create the Social Democratic Party of Germany ("Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands" - SPD), had been represented in the Reichstag since 1871. It was the only party in the German Empire to actively demand a republican government, provoking Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to declare the SPD illegal in 1878 (Socialist Laws) and prosecute its members until he was dismissed by the Kaiser in 1890. Nevertheless, the SPD was able to increase its numbers of votes in nearly every election. In the elections of 1912 the Social Democrats received 28% of the votes and, with 110 deputies, made up the strongest faction in parliament.

In the 43 years between the founding of the German Empire and World War I, the SPD not only grew in importance but also changed its character. Starting in 1898, the so-called "Revisionists" called for the major objective of revolution to be removed from the party agenda while advocating that social reforms to the capitalist economic system should be pursued instead. The Marxist wing of the party was able to assert itself, but the continuing revolutionary rhetoric only barely covered the fact that, after having been legalized in 1890, the SPD had practically become a reformist party. After they had been labelled as "vaterlandslose Gesellen" ("unpatriotic bunch") for so long, the Social Democrats considered themselves to be German patriots. By the outbreak of WWI it became obvious that the SPD had become an integral – albeit opposing – part of the Empire. [see: Volker Ullrich, "Die nervöse Großmacht" S. 173-176]

The SPD and World War I

Around 1900, German Social Democracy was considered to be the leading force in the international Labour Movement. With 28% of the votes in 1912 the Social Democrats had developed into a faction to be reckoned with in Germany. Party membership was around 1 million and the party press ("Vorwärts") alone had 1.5 million subscribers. Social Democratic unions, the majority of all unions, had 2.5 million members. 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 adhered along Social Democratic lines. Other noteworthy parties in the Reichstag of 1912 were the Catholic Centre Party (91), 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. As late as during the July Crisis following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the SPD — like other socialist parties in Europe — organized extensive anti-war demonstrations. In these, those such as Rosa Luxemburg who represented the left wing of the party called for disobedience and rejection of the war in the name of the entire party. As a result, 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 Russia on August 1, 1914, the majority of the SPD-newspapers were initially swept away by the general enthusiasm for the war, thus receiving harsh criticism from the party leadership. But in the first days of August the editors believed 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 assured that he himself would “shoulder the gun” if it was to fight against (Czarist) Russia, the “enemy of all culture and all the suppressed”. [see: Ullrich, "Die nervöse Großmacht" p. 446] . [ [ Manfred Scharrer (verdi): "Das patriotische Bekenntnis"] ] In the face of the general enthusiasm for the war among the population, which believed in 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-czarist 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. 14 deputies headed by the second party leader, Hugo Haase, spoke out against the bonds but nevertheless raised their hands in favour because they were “under the whip” (requirement to vote in accordance with party policy).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 mobilization 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 Kaiser welcomed the so-called "truce" ("Burgfrieden"), declaring: "Ich kenne keine Parteien mehr, ich kenne nur noch Deutsche!" ("I do not know parties anymore, I know only Germans!"). [cit. by Sebastian Haffner, "Der Verrat" p. 12] Even Karl Liebknecht, later becoming the symbol of the most decisive opponents of the war, initially bent under the whip; he abstained from voting to not defy his own faction. But a few days later he joined the "Gruppe Internationale" (Group International) which Rosa Luxemburg had founded on August 5 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 nation wide Spartacist League (Spartakusbund) on January 1 1916. As of December 2 1914 and initially the only deputy of the Reichstag, Liebknecht voted against further war bonds. He was not permitted to present his speech connected with this vote. Nevertheless it was made public through the circulation of an illegal leaflet: "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" (Politischen Briefe), the collections of which afterwards were illegally published 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 even with those party members around Haase who actually were against the war bonds themselves. At the instigation of the SPD party leadership, Liebknecht was drafted in February 1915 for military service in order to dispose of him — the only SPD deputy to get drafted. Because of his attempts to organize objectors of the war, he was expelled from the SPD, and in June 1916, he was sentenced on grounds of high treason to four years in prison. While he was in the army, Rosa Luxemburg wrote most of the Spartacus Letters. Rosa Luxemburg, after having served a prison sentence, also was put back in jail under "preventive detention" until the war ended.

The split of the SPD

The longer the war lasted and the more victims it took, the less SPD-members were prepared to keep up the "truce" of 1914, even more so, since 1916 not the Kaiser and the Imperial Government set the guidelines of German policy but the Supreme Army Command (Oberste Heeresleitung- OHL) under the Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. Actually power in Germany had passed to the military and it was Ludendorff who made the fundamental and essential decisions. He was later to give German history a decisive turn. The generals pursued expansionist and offensive war goals and subjected civil life to the needs of commanding a war and a war economy. For the labour force this meant amongst other things a 12-hour-day at minimal wages with inadequate provisions.

After the outbreak of the Russian February Revolution in 1917 the first organized strikes in numbers erupted in German armament factories in March and April of that year with participants of about 300,000 workers. The USA's entry into the war on 6 April 1917 threatened to further worsen the situation and the Kaiser tried to appease the strikers in his Easter address of 7 April. He promised democratic elections after the war, also for the state of Prussia, which still had the three-class franchise system.

After the SPD-leadership under Friedrich Ebert had excluded the opponents of the war from the party ranks the Spartacists and then the so-called “Revisionists”, like Eduard Bernstein, and the Centrists, like Karl Kautsky responded to the growing dissatisfaction among the labour force. On 9 April 1917 they founded Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) under the leadership of Hugo Haase. The SPD, thus also called "MSPD" (Majority Social Democrats), remained under Friedrich Ebert. The USPD demanded the immediate end of the war and a further democratization 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 Tsar, Nicholas II, on 15 March 1917, the Russian Provisional Government, since the previous 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 Bolsheviki, Vladimir Lenin, pass in a sealed train wagon from his exile in Switzerland through Germany, Sweden and Finland to St. Petersburg.

As hoped, the Bolsheviks, who had demanded an immediate end to the war, were able to seize power in the October Revolution. Lenin's success raised fears among German bourgeoisie that such a revolution could take place in Germany. With unease the SPD leadership also took note that a determined and well managed group such as the Bolsheviks was able to assert itself against a parliamentary majority of moderate socialists and middle-class-parties. Their endeavour to prevent a similar development in Germany determined their behaviour 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 realized 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. [zit. nach Schulze, Weimar. Germany 1917-1933", p. 158]

In the same month 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 the further developments. They called themselves "Councils" (Räte) after the Russian "Soviets". In order to weaken their influence Ebert joined the Berlin strike leadership and attained an early termination of the strike.

On March 3, 1918 the new Soviet government agreed to the peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk negotiated with the Germans by Leon Trotsky. This settlement contained much harsher terms for the Russians than the later Treaty of Versailles demanded of the Germans. The Supreme Command was now able to move a part of the eastern armies to the western front. Most Germans believed that also in the west victory was at hand.

Peace through victory or peace through rapprochement?

After the US 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 Catholic Centre Party and the Progressive People's Party. In Summer 1917 these 3 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 a victory. The Supreme Command couldn’t be bothered with this resolution and in the negotiations from December 1917 to March 1918 imposed a peace by victory upon Russia.

The Supreme Command also outright rejected the "Fourteen Points" set out by President Woodrow Wilson on January 8 of 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 opponents in the war.

Request for cease fire and change of Constitution

After the victory in the east the Supreme Command ordered a new offensive in the west in order to bring about a decisive turn in favour of the Germans. But when by July 1918 the last reserves were burnt up, military defeat of Germany was sealed. On 8 August 1918, Canadian, Australian and French divisions using British Mark I tanks broke through the German lines between Albert and Moreuil. In mid-September the Balkan Front collapsed. Bulgaria, an ally of the German Empire and Austria-Hungary, capitulated on 27 September. The collapse of Austria-Hungary was now only a matter of days.

On 29 September the Supreme Command informed the Kaiser, who was the Supreme War Lord, and the Imperial Chancellor Count Georg von Hertling at army headquarters in Spa, Belgium that the military situation was hopeless. Ludendorff, probably fearing a break-through, claimed that he couldn't guarantee the front to hold for another 24 hours and demanded the Entente be requested for an immediate cease fire. In addition, he recommended the acceptance of the main demand of US President Wilson and 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 into the hands of the democratic parties and the parliament. As he said to officers of his staff on 1 October: "They now must lie on the bed that they've made us" ". [zit. nach Haffner, "Der Verrat" p. 32f.]

Thus the so called "Myth of the Stab in the Back" was born, according to which the revolutionaries had attacked the undefeated army from the rear, and thus turning 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 of great importance that the Imperial Government and the German Army managed to shirk their responsibilities at the very beginning and put the blame for the defeat on 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." [zit. nach Schulze, "Weimar. Deutschland 1917-1933" p. 149]

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 not even stopped at political assassinations, e. g. Matthias Erzberger and Walter Rathenau. In Hitler's attempt at a coup in 1923 together with Ludendorff they deliberately chose the heavily symbolic 9 November. In his later ascent to power, Hitler, who had served in the German army as a corporal, cunningly exploited the sentiments of the home comers who not only thought that they had been betrayed by the new democratic government but also certainly felt betrayed by their commanders, who so uselessly had sent them to slaughter, especially at Verdun.

The Imperial Government and shortly afterwards the members of parliament were shocked by Ludendorff’s report and the news of the defeat. Nevertheless, the majority parties in the Reichstag, among them the SPD as the most important, were willing to take on the responsibility of government at the last minute. As the convinced royalist Hertling objected to handing over the reins to the Reichstag, on 3 October, Kaiser Wilhelm II appointed His Grand-Ducal Highness Prince Prince Maximilian of Baden the new Imperial Chancellor. Von Baden was considered a liberal, yet a representative of the royal family. In his cabinet the Social Democrats also took on responsibility. The most prominent and highest-ranking was Philipp Scheidemann as undersecretary 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 on 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 Chancellor and the Ministers depended on the confidence of the Reichstag majority. The supreme command of the Armed Forces passed from the Kaiser to the Imperial Government. Thus the German Empire had changed from a constitutional to a parliamentary monarchy. As far as the SPD was 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 Kaiser voluntarily ceded power and thus considered a revolution as unnecessary.

The third Wilson note and Ludendorff's dismissal

In the following three weeks American 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 – in between lines – the Kaiser's abdication. The latter was to render the process of democratization irreversible. After the third Wilson Note of 24 October, Ludendorff, in a sudden change of mind, declared the conditions of the allies as unacceptable. He now demanded to resume the war which he himself had declared lost only one month earlier. It had been only in the course of the request for a truce, submitted on his demand that the total military weakness of the Empire was revealed to the allies. The German troops had adapted themselves to the ending of the war and were pressing to get home. It was scarcely possible to newly arouse their readiness for battle 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. 5 November the allies agreed to take up negotiations for a truce. But the third Wilson Note had created the impression among many soldiers and general population that the Kaiser must abdicate in order to achieve peace.


Sailors' revolt

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 (see Kaiserliche Marine) in Kiel under Admiral Franz von Hipper, without authorization, planned to dispatch the fleet for a last battle against the Royal Navy in the English Channel.

The naval order of 24 October 1918 and the preparations to sail first triggered 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 being needlessly sacrificed in the last moment of the war. 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.

The sailors revolt started on the Schillig Roads off Wilhelmshaven, where the German fleet had anchored in expectation of a planned battle. During the night from 29 to 30 October 1918 some crews refused to obey orders. On board of three ships from the Third Navy Squadron sailors refused to lift anchor. On board of the battle ships from the First Navy Squadron SMS "Thüringen“ and "Helgoland" outright mutiny and sabotage occurred. However it did not affect all units and when a day later some torpedo boats pointed their cannons onto the "Thüringen" and "Helgoland", the sailors and stokers gave up and let themselves be 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 any more be relied upon. The Third Navy Squadron was ordered back to Kiel.

The squadron commander Vizeadmiral Kraft exercised a manoeuvre with his battle ships in the Helgoland Bay. When it "functioned blamelessly (tadellos funktionierte)" he believed to master his crews again. While moving through the Kiel Canal he had 47 sailors from the SMS "Markgraf", who were seen as the ringleaders, imprisoned. In Holtenau (end of the canal in Kiel) they were brought 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 from 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 mutineer’s 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 mobilized shipyard worker Lothar Popp, both USPD members, the sailors called for a large meeting the following day on 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 being present. The slogan "Frieden und Brot” (peace and bread) was raised showing that the sailors and workers demanded not only the release of the imprisoned 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 to the direction of the military prison. Shortly before the sub-lieutenant Steinhäuser, who had to stop the demonstrators, ordered his patrol to give warning shots and then to shoot directly into the demonstration. There were 7 people 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. (See Hauptkrankenbuch Festungslazarett Kiel, Nr. 15918, Krankenbuchlager Berlin, zit. bei Dirk, Dähnhardt, "Revolution in Kiel." p. 66.) 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 refused obedience: after a Division inspection of the commander spontaneous demonstrations took place. Karl Artelt organized the first soldier's council, and soon many more were set up. The governor of the navy station, Wilhelm Souchon, had to negotiate. The imprisoned sailors and stokers were freed. Soldiers and workers brought public and military institutions under their control. When, against Souchons promise, different troops advanced to quash the rebellion, they were intercepted by the mutineers and were either sent back or joined the sailors and workers. Thus Kiel was by the evening of 4 November – as well as two days later Wilhelmshaven – firmly in the hands of approximately 40,000 revolting sailors, soldiers and workers.

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 rising 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 from the USPD became chairman of the overall soldiers council. During the coming weeks Noske actually managed to reduce the influence of the councils in Kiel, but he could not prevent the spreading of the revolution to all of Germany. The events had already spread far beyond the city limits.

The revolution catches hold in the whole Empire

As of 4 November delegations of the sailors scattered out to all larger cities in the country. Already by 7 November the revolution had seized all larger coastal cities as well as Hanover, Brunswick, Frankfurt and Munich. In Munich a Workers' and Soldiers' Council forced the last King of Bavaria, Ludwig III, to abdicate. Bavaria was the first state of the Empire to be declared a "Council Republic" (Räterepublik) Bavarian Soviet Republic by USPD-Member Kurt Eisner. In the following days the royals of all the other German states abdicated, the last one on 23 November was Günther Victor von Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt.The Workers' and Soldiers' Councils were almost entirely made up of SPD and USPD members. Their programme was democracy, pacifism and anti-militarism. Apart from the royals they deprived only the hitherto almighty military commands of power. The imperial civilian administration and office bearers-–police, municipal administrations, courts--remained unscathed. There were also hardly any confiscations of property or occupations 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 time being laid claim only to the supervision of the administration that previously had been in the hands of the military commands.Thus, the SPD was able to establish a firm base on the local level. But while the councils believed to be 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, 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 type of state. This soon brought the SPD into opposition with a large part of revolutionaries. It was especially the USPD that took over their demands, one of which was elections as late as possible hoping to create unchangeable facts that met the expectations of a large part of the workorce.

Reactions in Berlin

Ebert agreed with Max von Baden that a social revolution was to be prevented and that state order must be upheld at any cost. For the restructuring of the state, Ebert wanted to win over the middle-class parties, which already had cooperated with the SPD in the Reichstag in 1917, as well as the old elites of the Empire. He wanted to avoid a feared radicalization of the revolution along Russian lines and he also worried that the precarious situation of supplies could collapse when the existing administration would be taken over by inexperienced revolutionaries. Ebert believed the SPD would inevitably gain parliamentary majorities in the future, enabling the party to implement its reform plans. As far as possible he therefore spared no effort to act in agreement with the old powers.

Ebert still had in mind to save the monarchy as such. In order to produce some success to his followers he demanded as of November 6 the abdication of the Kaiser. 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 Max von Baden Ebert declared on 7 November: "If the Kaiser doesn't abdicate the social revolution is unavoidable. But I don't want it, indeed I hate it like the sin." (Wenn der Kaiser nicht abdankt, dann ist die soziale Revolution unvermeidlich. Ich aber will sie nicht, ja, ich hasse sie wie die Sünde.) [zitiert nach v. Baden: "Erinnerungen und Dokumente" p. 599 f.] Max von Baden planned to travel to Spa and personally convince the Kaiser of the necessity to abdicate. Yet, this plan was taken over by the quickly deteriorating situation in Berlin.

9 November 1918: The end of the monarchy

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 upon the demonstrators. Nobody followed the public appeals. More and more demonstrators demanded the total abolishment of the monarchy. Karl Liebknecht, only just recently released from prison, had returned to Berlin and re-founded the Spartakist League the previous day. At lunch in the Reichstag the SPD deputy chairman Philipp Scheidemann learned that Liebknecht planned the proclamation of the Socialist Republic. Scheidemann did not want to leave the initiative to the Spartakists and without further ado stepped out onto a balcony of the Reichstag. From there he proclaimed on his part-–against Ebert's professed will-–before a mass of demonstrating people on his part the Republic.

Only hours later Berlin newspapers published that-–presumably at the same time--in the Berlin Tiergarten Liebknecht had proclaimed the Socialist Republic to which again he swore in a crowd of people assembled around 4 p.m. at the Berlin Royal Residence.

At that time Karl Liebknecht's intentions were little known to the public. The Spartacist League demands of 7 October for a far reaching restructuring of the economy, the army and the judiciary – amongst other things by abolishing the death penalty, had not yet been publicized. The biggest bone of contention with the SPD was to be the Spartacist’s demand to create facts by socializings and other measures "before" the election of a constituent assembly while the SPD wanted to leave the decision for 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 German Citizens'.

Ebert wanted to take the sting out of the revolutionary mood and he wanted to meet the demands of the demonstrators for the unity of the labour parties. He offered the USPD to participate in the government and wanted 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 not able to come to a decision on that day.

Neither the early announcement of the Kaiser's abdication by Max von Baden and Ebert's chancellorship, nor Scheidemann's proclamation of the Republic were covered by the constitution. These all constituted revolutionary actions by protagonists who did not want a revolution but nevertheless created lasting facts. However, as late as the same evening, a real revolutionary action took place which, in the end, would prove to have been in vain.

Around 8 p.m. a group of 100 Revolutionary Stewards (Revolutionäre Obleute) from the larger Berlin factories occupied the Reichstag and formed a Revolutionary Parliament. Most of them were the same persons who made their début in January as strike leaders. They did not trust the SPD leadership and had planned a coup independently from the sailor's revolt for 11 November but had been 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 decide on workers' and soldiers' councils which then were to elect a revolutionary government from members of the 2 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.

10 November: SPD leadership in opposition to the revolutionary stewards

As late as Saturday 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 the early 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 the Stewards. When it became foreseeable 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 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 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 did not regard the Council Parliament and the Executive Council as help but only as an obstacle on the way to a new system of government with a smooth transition from the Empire. It was mainly the councils but not the old elites in army and administration that the whole SPD leadership regarded as a danger. They considerably overestimated the old elite's loyalty to the new republic. What bothered Ebert most was that now in front of the Councils he could not act as Chancellor but only as chairman of a revolutionary government. Indeed, conservatives regarded him as a traitor although he had taken the lead of the revolution only in order to stop it.

In the 8 weeks of double rule of Councils and Imperial Government the latter always was dominant. The whole higher level administration submitted to only Ebert although Haase formally was a chairman in the Council with equal rights. As far as the question of real power was concerned the decisive factor was a phone call on the evening of 10 November between Ebert and General Wilhelm Groener, the new First General Quartermaster in Spa. The General assured Ebert of the support of the Army and therefore 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. But the expectation that with this pact the Imperial Officer Corps could be won over for the republic was to be not badly disappointed. At the same time Ebert's behaviour became increasingly puzzling to the revolutionary workers and soldiers and their Stewards. Thus the SPD leadership lost more and more confidence of its supporters without gaining any sympathies from the opponents of the revolution on the right.

In the turmoil of this day, it went almost totally unnoticed that the Ebert government after a renewed demand by the Supreme Command, had accepted the harsh terms of the Entente for a truce. On 11 November, the Centre Party deputy Matthias Erzberger, on behalf of Berlin, signed the armistice agreement in Compiègne, France. Thus, World War 1 had come to an end.

The Stinnes-Legien-Agreement

The ideas among the revolutionaries about the future economical and state system varied greatly. The demand to at least place the heavy industry with importance for the war under democratic control was widely circulated in both SPD and USPD. The left wings of both parties and the Revolutionary Stewards wanted to go beyond that and establish a "direct democracy" in the production sector. The elected delegates in this sector were also to control the political power. In was in the interest of not only the SPD to prevent a Council Democracy but also the unions that would have been rendered superfluous by the councils.

That is why during the revolutionary events 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. Therefore 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 long time demands but undermined all efforts for nationalising means of production and largely eliminated the Councils.

Interim government and the 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. Thus 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 general suffrage from 20 up, for the first time with 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. This committee 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. It is from these bodies that the modern German Works or Factory Committees emerged. Socialist expropriations were not initiated.

The SPD leadership rather worked with the old administration than with the new Workers' and Soldiers' Councils, because it did not consider them capable of properly supplying the needs of the population. As of mid-November this caused continuing strife with the Executive Council. The Council continuously changed its position after whoever it just happened to represent. As a result 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 and made believe.

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 true 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 there was a majority of Councils that 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 foods, 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 then they were also never given a chance to think about it. Many wanted to support the new government and expected it to abolish militarism and the authoritarian state. They were weary of the war, there was great poverty and many of them hoped for a peaceful solution. As a result of this 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. They much rather supported the governments decision to call for elections for a constituent national assembly as soon as possible. It was this assembly that was to decide upon the state system.

The Convention disagreed with Ebert only on the issue of control of the army. Among other things the Convention demanded 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) which it intended to use 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.

Christmas crisis

After 9 November the government had ordered the newly created People's Navy Division (Volksmarinedivision) from Kiel to Berlin for its protection and stationed it in the Royal Stables (Marstall) of the Berlin Stadtschloss (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 involved in the affair. It was this loyalty that now gave them the reputation of being in favour of the Spartacists. Ebert demanded their disbanding and withdrawal from the Residence and Otto Wels, as of 9 November 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, 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 Spartakist revolutionaries. Instead, they still insisted on only their pay. Nevertheless, Ebert, who via 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 centre 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. So 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 that the USPD left the government in protest on 29 December. They could not have done Ebert a bigger favour since he had let them participate only under the pressure of the revolutionary events. Within a few days the military defeat of the Ebert government had turned into a political victory.

Founding of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) 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). [see Winkler, "Weimar" p. 55 f.]

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 fulfilment 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. Also the so called "Spartacist Uprising" that now followed only partially originated in the KPD. The KPD was even a minority.

The initiators assembled at the Police Headquarters elected a 53-member "Interim Revolutionary Committee" (Provisorischer Revolutionsausschuss) which had no idea how to make use of its power and was unable to give any clear direction. Liebknecht demanded the topple 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 headed 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. It declared itself neutral. The other regiments stationed in Berlin mostly remained loyal to the government.

While at 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." [zit. nach Winkler, "Weimar" p. 58]

After the Freikorps brutally had cleared several buildings and executed the occupiers on the spot, the others soon surrendered. A part of them was nevertheless also shot. In this manner 156 people lost their lives in Berlin.

The murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg

The alleged wire pullers of the January Revolt had to go into hiding and in spite of being urged by their compatriots 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 and badly mistreated. That same night both prisoners were beaten unconscious with the 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 Nazis 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 Papst maintained that he had talked on the phone with Noske in the Chancellery. [see "Der Spiegel" of 18.04.1962] Noske and Ebert had approved of his actions. This statement by the perpetrator that such an order was issued by Ebert and Noske has never been confirmed, especially since neither parliament nor the courts examined the case.

After the murders of 15 January the opposition between SPD and KPD grew even more irreconcilable. One result of this in the coming years was that in the Weimar Republic both parties could not decide on joint action against the Nazis (NSDAP) 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 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 modern predominating opinion of historians [vgl. Schulze, "Weimar. Deutschland 1917-1933" S. 169 u. 170] the establishment of a Bolshevik-style council dictatorship, as late as 9./10. November, was beyond the realm of the possible. Yet the Ebert Government felt threatened by a coup from the left and 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 leader's behaviour during the revolution to this very day outright as 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 (Zentrumspartei) and several middle-class parties took part, which had established themselves since November: the left-liberal German Democratic Party (Deutsche Demokratische Partei DDP), the national-liberal German Peoples Party (Deutsche Volkspartei DVP) and the conservative, nationalist German National Peoples Party (Deutschnationale Volkspartei 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 a 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 Imperial 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 of 1919.

Nationalist Revolution

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. The newly formed Nazi Party under leadership of Adolf Hitler and support of former German army chief Erich von Ludendorff, entered into the 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 endorsed the Nazis objective to overthrow the German government. The putsch came to an end when the German army and police were called in to put down the putsch resulting in an armed confrontation where a number of Nazis and some police were killed.


The Republic was under great pressure from both left and right-wing extremists. The radical left accused the ruling Social Democrats of having betrayed the ideals of the workers' movement by preventing a communist revolution. Right-wing extremists were opposed to any democratic system, preferring an authoritarian state like the 1871 Empire. To further undermine the Republic's credibility the extremists of the right (especially certain members of the former officer corps) also blamed an alleged conspiracy of Socialists and Jews for Germany's defeat in World War I (see Dolchstoßlegende). Both parties would make reckless use of the freedoms guaranteed by the new constitution in their fight against the Weimar Republic. It came to an end with the ascent of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.

The Revolution from the standpoint of contemporaries and posterity

The Revolution of 1918/19 is one of the most important events in the later history of Germany, yet, if at all, it is poorly embedded in the historical memory of Germans. The failure of the Weimar Republic which this revolution brought forth and the following Nazi-era 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 as the radical left-–under different circumstances--nurtured the idea that there was a Communist uprising aiming to establish a Soviet Republic following the Russian example. Also the democratic centre parties, especially the SPD, had little interest in a just assessment of the events which turned Germany into a Republic. At closer look these events turn out to be a revolution supported by the Social Democrats, which was stopped by the Social Democratic party leadership. It is also due to these facts and other birth defects during the revolution that the Weimar Republic proved to be a weak democracy and succumbed only 14 years later.

It was of great importance that the Imperial Government and the Supreme Command shirked their responsibilities for the war and the defeat at an early stage and left the majority parties of the Reichstag to cope with the resulting burdens. The underlying calculation is verified by citation from the autobiography of Ludendorff’s successor Groener: ”It suited me just fine, when the army and the Supreme Command remained guiltless as possible in these wretched truce negotiations, from which nothing good could be expected”. [zit. nach Schulze, "Weimar. Deutschland 1917-1933" p. 149]

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 wanting to conceal his own gravely wrong military decisions. 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). The radical right did not even shy away from political assassinations as of Matthias Erzberger and Walter Rathenau. It was a conscious choice of Hitler and Ludendorf to pick symbolic 9 November as the date of their attempted “Beer Hall Putsch” in 1923.

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 new type of state. Instead, they regarded the democratic republic as a creation to be done away with 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” . [see Sontheimer, "Antidemokratisches Denken"]

Contemporary Witnesses

Even at the time, contemporaries had greatly differing opinions about the revolution depending on their political standpoint of view.

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 picture was cleared by the morning newspapers: 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”. [zit. nach Haffner, "Der Verrat" p. 85]

The liberal publicist Theodor Wolff wrote on the very day of 10 November in the newspaper Berliner Tageblatt, lending himself far too much to optimistic illusions, which the SPD Leadership might also 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”. [zit. nach Haffner, "Der Verrat" p. 95]

The perception of the extreme right was completely the opposite. In the conservative newspaper “Deutsche Tageszeitung” on November 10th, the journalist Paul Baecker totally misjudged or consciously reinterpreted Ludendorff’s actions in an article that already contained the essential elements of the “Myth of the Stab in the Back” which were later spread in the same manner by Hitler and the Nazis: “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”. [zit. nach Haffner, "Der Verrat" p. 96]

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. 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 were 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 at the time were left out: the shattering of the federal states, the division of big landownership, the revolutionary socialization of industry, the 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”. [Kurt Tucholsky: "Gesammelte Werke" (Collected Works), Vol. 6, p. 300]

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”. [ zit. nach Sösemann, "Demokratie im Widerstreit", p.13 ]

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 sigh,t 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.” [Haffner, "Der Verrat" p. 193 f.]

Historical Research

In the time of National Socialism works on the Weimar Republic and the German Revolution published abroad and by emigrants in the 1930s and 1940s could not be received 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. Thus, in 1951, Theodor Eschenburg to a great extent ignored the revolutionary beginning of the republic. Karl Dietrich in 1955 also dealt the German Revolution from the perspective of the failed republic. Erich Eyck e. g. 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). Nevertheless his 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”. [zit. nach Kluge, "deutsche Revolution 1918/19", p. 15] The imminent council dictatorship thus forced the majority Social Democrats to join up with the old elites. So the blame for the failure of the Weimar Republic was to be put on the extreme left. If one agrees with 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 really was threat to the democratic development. In this 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-historiography blamed the SPD for “betrayal of the working class” and the USPD-Leadership for their incompetence. Its interpretation was mainly based on the 1958 theories of the Central Committee of the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) according to which the character of the German Revolution was “bourgeois-democratic revolution” that was lead in certain aspects with proletarian means and methods. That a revolution by the working class in Germany never happened can be put down to the fact of the “subjective factor”, especially the missing 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. [nach Eberhard Kolb: "Die Weimarer Republik". Wien, 1984. p. 154f]

As historical research in West German during the 1950s focussed on the final stages of the Weimar Republic in the 1960s it shifted to its revolutionary beginnings supported by the realization that the decisions and developments during the revolution were central to the failure of the first German Republic. Especially the Worker’s and Soldier’s Councils moved into focus and their previous appearance as a far leftwing 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-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 yet reform orientated councils) to consistently democratise the administration, military and society had been relatively large. But the MSPD-Leadership did not take that step because it trusted in the loyalty of the old elites but 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. More and more 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 criticized and partially modified since the end of the 1970s. Criticism was aimed at the partially idealized description of the Worker’s and Soldier’s Councils which especially was the case in the wake of the German Student Movement of 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 focussed 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 orientated to a large extent nor can the policies of the majority SPD in every aspect be labelled fortuitous and worth praising.” [zit. nach Kolb, a.a.O. p. 160f]

Heinrich August Winkler tried to find a compromise that all could agree upon. According to this the Social Democrats to a limited extent had depended on the cooperation with the old elites but they went considerably further than necessary: “With more political willpower they could have changed more and preserved less.” [zit. nach Kolb, a.a.O. p. 161] In spite of all the differences concerning details, a current opinion among historical researchers has become apparent: 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. [Kolb, a.a.O. S.143-162; Kluge, "Deutsche Revolution" p.10-38]

See also

*Wielkopolska Uprising (1918–1919)
*Silesian Uprisings

Further reading

*cite book | title=The German Revolution 1917-1923 | last=Broue | first=Pierre | publisher=Haymarket Books | year=2006 | id=ISDN 1931859329
*Chris Harman cite book | title=The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-1923 | publisher=Bookmarks | year=1982 | id=ISDN 090622408X
* cite book | title=Failure of a Revolution Germany in 1918-1919| last=Coper | first=Rudolf | publisher=Cambridge University Press | year=1955
*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
*Alfred Döblin: "November 1918. Eine deutsche Revolution", Roman in vier Bänden, München 1978, ISBN 3-423-01389-3
*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
*Paul Frolich: "Rosa Luxemburg - Her Life and Work", Hesperides Press, ISBN 1-406-79808-8
*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 (o. ISBN, Großformat, mit umfangreichem Bildmaterial)
*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
*derselbe: "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
*Kurt Tucholsky: "Gesammelte Werke in 10 Bänden", hg. von Mary Gerold-Tucholsky und Fritz J. Raddatz, Reinbek 1975, ISBN 3-499-29012-X
*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
*derselbe: "Deutschland vor Hitler." In: "Der historische Ort des Nationalsozialismus", Fischer TB 4445

External links

* [ The German revolution] Fractal-vortex
* [ An overview of the German Revolution] by Gerhard Rempel of Western New England College
* [ Three texts on the German Revolution] written by council communists
* [ Library of materials on the German Revolution] at
* [ archive of texts on the German Revolution] at
* [ Homepage from Kiel] Interview with one of the leaders of the mutiny in Kiel: Lothar Popp; CV of Lothar Popp; interviews with other contemporary witnesses; evaluations; time-line


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