The German Revolution of 1918 – 19

Barricades in Schützenstraße, 1918
Barricades in Schützenstraße, 1918. Culture Club / Getty Images

In 1918 – 19 Imperial Germany experienced a socialist-heavy revolution that, despite some surprising events and even a small socialist republic, would bring a democratic government. The Kaiser was rejected and a new parliament based at Weimar took over. However, Weimar ultimately failed and the question of whether the seeds of that failure began in the revolution if 1918-19 has never been decisively answered.

Germany Fractures in World War One

Like the other countries of Europe, much of Germany went into World War One believing it would be a short war and a decisive victory for them. But when the western front ground to a stalemate and the eastern front proved no more promising, Germany realized it had entered into a prolonged process it was poorly prepared for. The country began to take the necessary measures to support the war, including mobilizing an enlarged workforce, dedicating more manufacturing to arms and other military supplies, and taking strategic decisions they hoped would give them an advantage.

The war went on through the years, and Germany found itself increasingly stretched, so much so it began to fracture. Militarily, the army stayed an effective fighting force until 1918, and widespread disillusion and failures stemming from morale only crept in towards the end, although there were some earlier revolts.

But before this, the steps taken in Germany to do everything for the military saw the ‘home front’ experience problems, and there was a marked change in morale from early 1917 onward, with strikes at one point numbering a million workers. Civilians were experiencing food shortages, exacerbated by the failure of the potato crop over the 1916-17 winter.

There were also fuel shortages, and deaths from hunger and cold more than doubled over the same winter; flu was widespread and lethal. Infant mortality was also growing considerably, and when this was coupled with the families of the two million dead soldiers and the many millions wounded, you had a populace that was suffering. In addition, while working days grew longer, inflation was making goods ever more expensive, and ever more unaffordable. The economy was on the verge of collapsing.

The discontent among German civilians was not limited to either the working or middle classes, as both felt an increasing hostility to the government. Industrialists were also a popular target, with people convinced they were making millions from the war effort while everyone else suffered. As the war went deep into 1918, and the German offensives failed, the German nation seemed to be on the verge of splitting, even with the enemy still not on German soil. There was pressure from government, from campaign groups and others to reform a government system that seemed to be failing.

Ludendorff sets the Time Bomb

Imperial Germany was supposed to be run by the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, aided by a Chancellor. However, over the final years of the war, two military commanders had taken control of Germany: Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

By mid-1918 Ludendorff, the man with the practical control, suffered both a mental breakdown and a long feared realization: Germany was going to lose the war. He also knew that if the allies invaded Germany it would have a peace forced on it, and so he took actions which he hoped would bring a gentler peace deal under Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points: he asked for the German Imperial autocracy to be transformed into a constitutional monarchy, keeping the Kaiser but bringing in a new level of effective government.

Ludendorff had three reasons for doing this. He believed the democratic governments of Britain, France, and the United States would be more willing to work with a constitutional monarchy than the Kaiserriech, and he believed that the change would head off the social revolt he feared the war’s failure would trigger as blame and anger were redirected.

He saw the neutered parliament’s calls for change and feared what they would bring if left unmanaged. But Ludendorff had a third goal, a far more pernicious and costly one. Ludendorff didn’t want the army to take the blame for the war’s failure, nor did he want his high-powered allies to do so either. No, what Ludendorff wanted was to create this new civilian government and make them surrender, to negotiate the peace, so they would be blamed by the German people and the army would still be respected. Unfortunately for Europe in the mid-twentieth century, Ludendorff was entirely successful, starting the myth that Germany had been ‘stabbed in the back’, and helping the fall of Weimer and the rise of Hitler.

'Revolution from Above'

A strong Red Cross supporter, Prince Max of Baden became chancellor of Germany in October 1918, and Germany restructured its government: for the first time the Kaiser and the Chancellor were made answerable to the parliament, the Reichstag: the Kaiser lost command of the military, and the Chancellor had to explain himself, not to the Kaiser, but parliament. And, as Ludendorff hoped, this civilian government was negotiating an end to the war.

Germany Revolts

However, as the news spread across Germany that the war was lost, shock set in, then the anger Ludendorff and others had feared. So many had suffered so much and been told they were so close to victory that many weren’t satisfied with the new system of government. Germany would move swiftly into revolution.

Sailors at a naval base near Kiel rebelled on October 29, 1918, and as the government lost control of the situation other major naval bases and ports also fell to revolutionaries. The sailors were angry at what was happening and were trying to prevent the suicide attack some naval commanders had ordered to try and recover some honor. News of these revolts spread, and everywhere it went soldiers, sailors and workers joined them in rebelling. Many set up special, soviet style councils to organize themselves, and Bavaria actually expelled their fossil King Louis III and Kurt Eisner declared it a socialist republic. The October reforms were soon being rejected as not enough, both by the revolutionaries and the old order who needed a way to manage events.

Max Baden hadn’t wanted to expel the Kaiser and family from the throne, but given that the latter was reluctant to make any other reforms, Baden had no choice, and so it was decided that the Kaiser would be replaced by a left-wing government led by Friedrich Ebert. But the situation at the heart of government was chaos, and first a member of this government - Philipp Scheidemann – declared that Germany was a republic, and then another called it a Soviet Republic. The Kaiser, already in Belgium, decided to accept military advice that his throne was gone, and he exiled himself to Holland. The Empire was over.

Left Wing Germany in Fragments

Germany now had a left wing government led by Ebert, but like Russia, the left wing in Germany was fragmented among several parties. The largest socialist group were the Ebert’s SPD (German Social Democratic Party), who wanted a democratic, parliamentary socialist republic, and disliked the situation evolving in Russia. These were the moderates, and there were radical socialists called the USPD (German Independent Social Democratic Party), a splinter of the SPD which was in turn splintered between wanting parliamentary democracy and socialism, and those who wanted a far more radical reforms. On the far left existed the Spartacus League, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. They had a small membership, had fragmented from the SPD before the war, and believed that Germany should follow the Russian model, with a communist revolution creating a state run through soviets. It’s worth pointing out that Luxembourg didn’t embrace the horrors of Lenin’s Russia, and believed in a much more humane system.

Ebert and Government

On November 9th 1918 a provisional government formed from the SPD and USPD, led by Ebert. It was divided over what it wanted, but was scared Germany was about to shatter into chaos, and they had been left to deal with the aftermath of the war: disillusioned soldiers coming home, a lethal flu epidemic, food and fuel shortages, inflation, extreme socialist groups and extreme right wing groups all of disheartened people, and the small matter of negotiating a war settlement that didn’t cripple the nation. The next day the military agreed to support the provisional in their task of running the nation until a new parliament was elected. It might seem strange with the shadow of World War 2, but the provisional government was most worried about the extreme left, like the Spartacists, seizing power, and many of their decisions were affected by this. One of the first was the Ebert-Groener deal, agreed with the new head of the army, General Groener: in return for their support, Ebert guaranteed the government would not support the presence of soviets in the military, or any lapse in military authority such as in Russia, and would fight against a socialist revolution.

At the end of 1918 the government looked like falling apart, as the SPD were moving from the left to the right in an ever more desperate attempt to gather support, while the USPD pulled out to focus on more extreme reform.

The Spartacist's Revolt

The German Communist Party or KPD was created on January 1st 1919 by the Spartacists, and they explained clearly that they would not stand in the forthcoming elections, but would campaign for soviet revolution through an armed uprising, Bolshevik style. They targeted Berlin, and began to seize key buildings, formed a revolutionary committee to organize, and called for the workers to go on strike. But the Spartacists had misjudged, and after a three day fight between poorly prepared workers and both the army and the ex-army Freikorps the revolution was crushed, and both Liebknecht and Luxembourg were killed after being arrested. The latter had already changed her mind about armed revolution. However, the event cast a long shadow over the elections for Germany’s new parliament. In fact such were the aftereffects of the revolt, with strikes and fights, that the first meeting of the National Constituent Assembly was moved to the town which would give the republic its name: Weimar.

The Results: The National Constituent Assembly

The National Constituent Assembly was elected in late January 1919 with a turnout modern governments would be envious of (83%), over three quarters of the votes going to democratic parties, and the easy formation of the Weimar Coalition thanks to large votes for the SPD, the DDP (German Democratic Party, the old middle class dominated National Liberal Party), and the ZP (Centre Party, the mouth of the large Catholic minority.) It’s interesting to note that The German National People’s Party (DNVP), the right wing’s biggest vote taker and backed by people with serious financial and landed power, got ten per cent.

Thanks to Ebert’s leadership and the quelling of extreme socialism, Germany in 1919 was led by a government which had changed at the very top – from an autocracy to a republic – but in which key structures like land ownership, industry and other businesses, the church, the military and the civil service, remained pretty much the same.

There was great continuity, and not the socialist reforms that the country seemed in a position to carry through, but neither had there been large scale bloodshed. Ultimately, it can be argued that the revolution in Germany was a lost opportunity for the left, a revolution that lost its way, and that socialism lost a chance to restructure before Germany and the conservative right grew ever more able to dominate.

Revolution?

Although it is common to refer to these events as a revolution, some historians dislike the term, viewing the 1918-19 as either a partial / failed revolution, or an evolution from the Kaiserreich, which might have taken place gradually if World War One had never occurred. Many Germans who lived through it also thought it was only half a revolution, because while the Kaiser had gone, the socialist state they had wanted was also absent, with the leading socialist party heading up a middle ground. For the next few years left wing groups would attempt to push the ‘revolution’ further, but all failed. In doing so, the center allowed the right to remain to crush the left.
Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Wilde, Robert. "The German Revolution of 1918 – 19." ThoughtCo, Apr. 7, 2017, thoughtco.com/german-revolution-of-1918-1221345. Wilde, Robert. (2017, April 7). The German Revolution of 1918 – 19. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/german-revolution-of-1918-1221345 Wilde, Robert. "The German Revolution of 1918 – 19." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/german-revolution-of-1918-1221345 (accessed December 17, 2017).