C.4. From Victory to Defeat and Revolution: 1918
Political origins of the revolution:
In the last two war years the German political landscape offered a peculiar picture: On the one side it looked as if the military had established a dictatorship. I mentioned that generals had received large administrative powers through the law of siege in 1914. When Hindenburg and Ludendorff became supreme army commanders in August 1916 they started to play a more assertive role in German domestic politics. They intervened in many political matters under the pretext of intensifying war production. It looked almost as if the generals altogether were running the country, and one historian has thus called the period between Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s appointment and the end of war a “silent dictatorship” (Martin Kitchen).
But at the same time the Reichstag’s role and authority also increased. For the sake of the Burgfrieden, the Reichstag had been rather passive from 1914 to 1916, but in the wake of the growing strains of war since the winter of 1916-17 its left-to-center majority took a more demanding stand. In February 1917 it put strong pressure on Bethmann and induced him to promise to reform the outmoded and undemocratic Prussian three-class suffrage. This triggered wild resistance from the Right, which saw its parliamentary majority in Prussia and its strong influence on German politics threatened by the reform. The Conservatives would have lost three quarters of their parliamentary seats had the Prussian diet been elected by universal and equal suffrage, as the Reichstag was. Given the fierce resistance from the Right, nothing was done until late in the fall of 1918.
But the Reichstag continued to push for reform. It was decisive that the Catholic Center Party, under the influence of its leader Matthias Erzberger (who was murdered by rightist anti-democrats in 1921), realized the urgency of reform and peace. Together with the left liberals and the moderate Social Democrats the Center formed a loose alignment, which was called the “Reichstag Majority,” since the three parties together indeed held a majority. Sometimes they were joined by the left wing of the rightist National Liberal party. The Reichstag Majority demanded a peace without major annexations and reparations in July 1917 and managed to secure more parliamentary control over the government. When Bethmann’s successor, a political non-entity, failed after three months in office, the Reichstag Majority demanded to be consulted in the deliberations about the new chancellor, also a non-entity (and half senile). This was in October 1917. After this date the reform process stopped for a while, as general hope for victory ran high again (Russian defeat, beginning offensive in the West).
A surprise chance for reform (but a thorny one) arose as defeat approached in the fall of 1918: Ludendorff, just back on his feet after his nervous breakdown, decided to embark on a wild gamble. Although a strict authoritarian conservative himself, he ordered a “revolution from above” on 29 September 1918 in reaction to military setbacks in the west and the breakdown of Bulgaria. This was an attempt to prevent the army from being totally defeated and from taking an active part in a possible revolution in Germany.
Ludendorff’s gamble rested on three expectations: first, he believed that democratization would avert a Russian-style socialist revolution in Germany by taking some wind out of the sails of the revolutionary workers’ movement; second, he assumed a democratic government would be more respectable in the eyes of President Wilson and that a German democracy might thus win better peace terms than the old government; third, and most importantly, Ludendorff’s gamble also had a domestic aspect: the Reichstag Majority — democrats and socialists, in particular — should take responsibility for the defeat and “liquidate” the war. Ludendorff claimed that German democrats and socialists had prevented him and Hindenburg from winning the war. Whether he fully believed this is unclear. He certainly made his opinion public as often as he could and thus poured out some of the poison that later helped to kill the Weimar Republic. Hindenburg supported this “stab-in-the-back” legend a little less notoriously but nonetheless effectively even though he was fully aware that Germany had lost the war in 1918.
Ludendorff’s quest for the parliamentarization of the German political system had immediate effects. Not even the most stubborn conservatives dared oppose the prestigious general. On 3 October the Reichstag majority accepted a liberal monarchist as new chancellor, Prince Max von Baden. The new chancellor appointed ministers from the Reichstag Majority, including two Social Democrats. At the request of Ludendorff he immediately sent a note requesting a truce to the American president. Wilson answered after some hesitation, demanding that Germany withdraw from all occupied territories, from Alsace-Lorraine, and from a region in eastern Prussia that the Allies planned to open as a Polish corridor to the Baltic Sea.
Max von Baden, aware of imminent defeat, accepted these hard conditions. In a new note, however, Wilson demanded to negotiate with the “true representatives of the German people;” this was an implicit call to overthrow the Kaiser. Wilson also demanded immediate stoppage of submarine warfare. He had been pressured by France and Britain to delay his answers and to continue demanding more and more, as the French and British hoped that Germany would definitely break down during these negotiations and thus have no choice but to surrender unconditionally.
Max von Baden stopped the submarine war but declined to change the system of government. With some justification he claimed that his government already represented the interests of the German people. While the chancellor was negotiating with the United States the harsh conditions for a truce induced Ludendorff to reconsider his strategies. He suddenly claimed that it was necessary to go on fighting at all cost. Many Germans, incensed at the prospective of being completely at the mercy of the Entente, called for a levée en masse, a general uprising against the potential invaders. This was unrealistic, as there were hardly any people any more who could fight. The army, moreover, would most likely have resisted such a deadly strategy.
Ludendorff wanted the ultimate fight probably more as a suicidal struggle to save the supposed “honor” of the army rather than to avert defeat. Maybe he believed that Germany would receive better conditions by showing willingness to fight. Anyway, he did not get his way. After fierce debates the Kaiser dismissed him on 26 October but kept Hindenburg as supreme commander. Two days later the government, supported by the Reichstag Majority, issued several laws that realized the “revolution from above” ordered by Ludendorff in late September 1918.
These October Reforms transformed the Bismarckian constitution into a parliamentarian monarchy. The Reichstag received the right to overthrow the chancellor and his government, and Reichstag members could become ministers. The Prussian three-class suffrage was finally abolished, and the military was put under parliamentary control. The Federal Council, traditionally the agent of conservative control, lost many prerogatives to the Reichstag. The government also decided for a reform that would equalize the electoral districts. The Bismarckian constitution thus was decisively reformed.
But people in the streets did not believe that this turn of events was sincere and durable. The new rules seemed somewhat ambivalent, since they still gave the Kaiser the right to appoint the chancellor and the ministers, and the Kaiser himself helped to raise suspicion when he left Berlin and traveled to the military headquarters in late October. The October Reforms, above all, came too late. Many Germans wanted a clearer break with the old system. Social tensions now exacerbated the conflict. Finally, the depressing prospective of imminent defeat undermined the authority of the old regime. The October Reforms thus appeared too much as a last-minute attempt to save the old elites and to ward off more profound changes. Many Germans did not realize that the Entente slowed down the negotiations for a truce; they believed their own government was continuing to prolong the war to postpone reform.
Whether all this would have been sufficient to spark the revolution is unclear. Conservative and many moderate Germans abhorred the idea of revolution, particularly in a state of national emergency. But one factor brought the situation to the boiling point: the Kaiser. Wilson’s notes had made it clear that Wilhelm II was considered unacceptable as a partner in negotiations. Although the Kaiser had been unusually passive and moderate throughout the war, foreign propaganda had used him as the symbol of the crude, barbarian German and declared him a top-level war criminal. The people in the Entente states now demanded his punishment. Letting him remain in power seemed impossible to the Entente; his removal was an undeclared war aim.
The Germans got nervous when it seemed as if Wilhelm II was the only obstacle standing between them and peace. In early November calls for his abdication became impossible to ignore. Although some politicians including the SPD leaders tried to save the monarchy by sacrificing Wilhelm II (through a regency of the Kaiser’s oldest grandson, for example), such solutions became unrealistic as the Kaiser, under the influence of the military, postponed his decision from one day to the other.
The decisive spark of the revolution, however, was not the Kaiser’s hesitation but the German admiralty’s order to the fleet to wage a suicidal attack on the British navy. When Wilson announced terms for a truce that forced the Germans to concede defeat, the navy decided to counteract the ongoing negotiations by launching a desperate attack against the British coast in late October 1918. The German admirals had not bothered to inform the Kaiser and the chancellor of their enterprise, which was born out of a crazy military code of honor. The navy, moreover, wanted to demonstrate the value of Tirpitz’s fleet building. When the admirals ordered the sailors to get ready for a sortie, however, the sailors got suspicious and mutinied. In Kiel, the main war port, they marched from their ships, showing red flags and shouting socialist and pacifist slogans. According to the model of the Russian revolutions of 1917 they began to form sailors’ and workers’ councils (“soviets” in Russian, “Räte” in German).
Although the government got control over the situation in Kiel by sending a moderate socialist there who calmed down the sailors, the example of Kiel sparked rebellions in other German cities and in Austria and Hungary. In Hamburg, workers’ and soldiers’ councils were formed, and the idea spread to Munich and Berlin. Returning soldiers often participated in upheavals and formed their own councils. So did even some farmers. In Munich a revolutionary socialist took power on 7 November, and within two days all German princes including the Kaiser abdicated without attempting any resistance.
The army command decided on 8 November that the army units returning from the front should restore order in the name of the Kaiser, but not enough loyal troops could be found to repress what had become a mass movement all over the country. Seeing that the Kaiser’s remaining in power threatened to trigger civil war and to undermine the negotiations for a truce, even the moderate parties now increased their pressure on him to abdicate. On 9 November Prince Max von Baden finally decided to announce the Kaiser’s abdication without Wilhelm’s consent and to appoint the moderate SPD leader Friedrich Ebert, Bebel’s successor, the new chancellor. This was strictly speaking illegal, but it helped to mitigate tensions. The Kaiser independently decided to abdicate some hours after Max von Baden had handed power over to the SPD. Hindenburg told Wilhelm II that no other solution remained. The following day the Kaiser crossed the border to the Netherlands.
The SPD was not all too happy about this turn of events. They had tried to effect a gradual and orderly takeover, but the competition and agitation of the more radical Left forced them to spearhead the revolutionary movement in order not to lose control over it. They invited the left-wing socialists to participate in the new government. The Independent Socialists, theUSPD, joined Ebert but demanded that the workers’, soldiers’, and farmers’ councils be given political rights in the future. Ebert reluctantly made some concessions but called for the election of a National Assembly that would draft a new constitution soon. Whether the council system would receive a place in that future constitution was not clear. The Independent Socialists certainly were determined to preserve its power, whereas the moderate SPD did not want a minority of factory workers have a disproportionate say in state affairs.
Germany on November 9 received a socialist government formed to equal parts of SPD and USPD leaders. The army command, now without the power to dominate politics, accepted to support the existing government against more radical efforts to start a revolution according to the Bolshevist model. Two days after the Kaiser’s abdication, on 11 November, the German delegates signed a truce in France. They had had no chance to change its conditions. Germany had to withdraw all troops from the left bank of the Rhine, disband most army units, and hand over immense amounts of means of transportation (railroads, trucks). The British blockade continued until June 1919. But the war was over. The Wilhelmine Empire was gone.
In the middle of revolutionary troubles, the Germans seemed unable to realize the seriousness of defeat. They had been promised victory for nearly four and a half years, and in this hope they had endured a long, bloody struggle, hunger, and massive human loss. Hardly a family had not lost a father or son in the front lines. Ebert, for instance, had lost both his sons in the war. My own grandmother lost three brothers on the western front (and a forth one returned handicapped), my grandfather one in the east. It was hard to believe that all of these sacrifices now amounted to nothing and that everything was much, much worse than when the war had started.
Social origins of the revolution:
Workers were the main “revolutionary mass.” They gathered in the streets of the cities in early November 1918 and forced the old monarchic governments out of office. They enjoyed some sympathies from democrats and left liberals, who wanted parliament to direct policies and control the government, which had hitherto been dependent upon the Kaiser. A strong minority among the workers, however, wanted more than a democratic revolution: they saw the overthrow of the Kaiser as a first step on the path to Communism.
But whatever their long-term goals, the radical workers helped to bring down the monarchy in 1918. Since the workers were protagonists of the revolution we can assume that social tensions form an important background to it. Social divisions heightened during the war, particularly over the last two years in which hunger and scarcity became a shared experience of workers. Even though the income gap between the highest and lowest incomes in Germany diminished significantly during the war, social difference became more conspicuous. This happened because almost everybody got poorer, so that the lower income groups faced hunger.
Social difference was no longer primarily a difference between rich and poor but one between people who had something to eat and those who had nothing to eat. In such situations, social aggressions increase almost always. Even though in percentage points the middle classes and some of the rich lost most through inflation and the enormous amounts of money they had put into war bonds, social tensions became more explosive, as starvation threatened the recipients of the lowest incomes. Those few industrialists and businessmen who gained a lot through government contracts thus became targets of popular anger and gave the poor the impression that the income gap was widening rather than narrowing.
Moreover, workers in urban areas suffered most from the supply problems. Even if their wages were decent, they had problems to find food and coal to heat their apartments. The trade unions and the socialist party had initially taken the Burgfrieden seriously. There were almost no strikes until 1917, and the SPD largely refrained from political action in the first two years of the war. This changed in the first so-called Hungerwinter of 1916-1917. More and more workers felt that the war had to come to an end. The first Russian revolution of March 1917, moreover, eliminated Tsarism as the main enemy against whom the German workers had been eager to fight in 1914. Increasingly, radical German socialists, who had split off from the SPD, won a large audience for their claims that peace was hindered by the aggressive war aims of the German industrial bourgeoisie and that only a socialist revolution would put an end to the war. (For a manifesto by Rosa Luxemburg, a radical socialist, see H-German: Rosa Luxemburg, The War and the Workers.)
The Bolshevist revolution in Russia (November 1917) inspired them and led to a new upsurge of socialist hopes in Germany. Strikes increased, but the majority of the workers still stood by the government. The SPD carefully tried to limit the expression of worker dissatisfaction and claimed that military victory or at least a compromise peace were still possible and would occur soon. Like almost everybody else, official propaganda had led the Socialist leaders to see the military situation in a rosy light. The hope for final victory through Ludendorff’s last campaign in France thus quieted dissatisfaction for a while, but when the military situation got worse in the fall of 1918 the workers showed their war-weariness. Generally, they still believed that Germany could receive decent peace terms if it stopped the war now, which again was an illusion and the consequence of an officially propagated optimism. Strong social tensions existed, but whether they alone would have triggered the revolution is unclear, particularly if we consider that the last government appointed by the Kaiser made far-reaching social concessions already in October 1918.
The “incomplete” revolution:
The German Revolution of 1918-19 has puzzled historians. It has some paradoxical characteristics. One is, that much of what it achieved in the new constitution of August 1919 (formally creating the Weimar Republic) had already been conceded by the Kaiser through the October Reforms of 1918, before the revolution (excepting female suffrage, however). There were workers in the revolution who fought for the establishment of a socialist society, but they did not reach their goal. What then did the other Germans who participated in it or supported it wish to reach? This has remained a little unclear. It was not just the overthrow of the Kaiser or the monarchy in general. Even leading Social Democrats would have agreed to keep the monarchy in some form and making the Kaiser’s oldest grandson new emperor.
A second odd feature of the revolution is that it encountered so little resistance. This seems surprising, if we consider to what lengths the Kaiser, his generals, and his politicians had always been willing to go in order to stabilize the system and to protect it against revolution. Take the example of Munich on 7 November 1918: workers gathered on a field in the city and marched toward the castle of the king of Bavaria in the center of town. Their leader spoke diffusely of revolution, but his crowd was hardly armed and probably did not know what exactly it wanted. Before the group arrived at the castle the king had abdicated, taken a horse carriage, and found a street to the Austrian border.
In similar fashion all German princes left their residences, some formally abdicating, others just leaving without further notice. Nobody defended the position they were so willingly giving up. The Crown Prince, Wilhelm II’s oldest son, made some plans with generals to send army units from the fronts to repress the revolution, but nothing happened when crowds in Berlin demanded the abdication of Wilhelm II. The old elites were simply moving out of the way! They had maneuvered Germany into a hopeless situation and left it to the socialists and democrats to deal with it. It needs to be added, of course, that self-criticism was rare among the princes; they usually blamed others for the defeat and the revolution.
With the exception of the peaceful breakdown of most communist dictatorships in 1989 it has rarely happened that a revolution succeeded so unspectacularly, quietly, without much bloodshed. Certainly, the radical socialists resorted to more violence when it became likely that the revolution would lead to capitalist democracy, not to a socialist state. And the right-wing enemies of the democracy were eager first to repress radical leftists with utmost brutality and then to undermine the Republic. But the fact remains: nobody defended the old order in November 1918. Instead, new research suggests that the German bourgeoisie, in addition to not doing much to avert revolution, to a large extent participated in it hoping to create a new order itself. The war had truly eroded old authorities and inspired hopes for a new political order even among many members of the middle class.
A third troubling feature of the revolution is that it seems somewhat incomplete. It had some success, at least in the short run, by making Germany a democracy. A new constitution modeled after the American and French constitutions replaced the Bismarckian monarchy. The social structure, however, remained mostly unchanged by the revolution. The traditional elites in the administration, the bureaucracy, and the military were allowed to stay in office. Many judges, policemen, officers, teachers, and government officials, who had been trained under the old system, paid only lip service to the Republic (and sometimes not even that), and they remained in place. The governments of the Republic made some attempts to substitute democrats for the anti-republicans, but — with some notable exceptions — these efforts did not go very far.
The new state introduced a new flag (horizontal stripes of black, red, and gold; identical with today’s German flag) and tried to foster a sense of national identification with the Republic, but it had not much success. Many Germans continued to identify with the pre-revolutionary state, and even the republican governments did not try to break that sense of continuity. That the Kaiser’s government should have been responsible for the outbreak of the First World War outraged almost all Germans, republicans and anti-republicans alike. It is by no means unusual in the history of revolutions that the new government blames the worst acts on the old one; witness Lenin’s publication of the Tsar’s secret treaties, which deeply compromised Russia’s policy before 1917. Such a thing was unthinkable to the German politicians after the revolution of 1918-19. Yet, the fact that the German revolution was moderate and achieved change only in some areas does not reduce its significance.
Go on to D.1.