The German Revolution of 1918

This is a reprint of an article by Professor Gerhard Rempel,

who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts.


The revolution that occurred in Germany in 1918-1919 was not really a revolution-at least not in the traditional sense of the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917, or even the German Revolution of 1848. Perhaps, by calling it the "German Revolution," we imply that things are conceived and done differently in Germany. Perhaps, that is true. Her political traditions were somewhat different from those of France and Russia.

The conditions which gave birth to revolution in November 1918 were unlike those of 1789 in France, and although somewhat similar to those in Russia in 1917, they were still not quite the same. Neither in France nor Russia did revolution come as a complete surprise even to purported revolutionaries. But it did in Germany. There was no sustained revolutionary agitation and strategy preceding it and when it came even the Social Democrats were completely overwhelmed by events.

I. Background

The war was lost, the emperor fled: a war-weary and hungry country became rebellious. So, the government turned to the Social Democrats in desperation. They were asked, nat to make a revolution-they were reformist by nature anyway-but to liquidate the crumbling edifice of the empire. The Socialists wound up doing things they did nat really want to do-they crushed their Spartacist cousins by force, preserved bourgeois society and re-created the army in the process. There were no stirring revolutionary manifestoes, no radical breaks in policy, no marching songs like the "Marseillaise" or the "Internationale."

It was the first songless revolution in history. Very few socialists, except the leftwing Independents like Emil Barth, Richard Müller and Georg Ledebour, claimed credit for making the revolution. The Majority Socialists had always believed that revolutions were not made in any case, but just happened in the course of socio-economic evolution.

The German Revolution certainly did not follow the pattern of the Leninist revolution just a year before. In fact, it could more meaningfully be compared to the French situation in 1871. In both instances there was a military defeat, complete political and moral bankruptcy of the dynasty, absence of any popular enthusiasm for the republic, a conservative majority confronting a radical minority and, finally, the emergence of republican institutions by default. In both cases middle-class leaders and Socialists agreed on the republic as the only road to survival for both of them. But the Third Republic in France lasted much longer because there was a long revolutionary tradition in France, but none at all in Germany. Germany's problem was not the absence of a Lenin or Trotsky, but rather the absence of a Gambetta, Clemenceau, Zola or Jaures, who could have instilled the nation with faith in republican democratic institutions.

There were three centers of revolutionary action in November, 1918: Kiel, Munich and Berlin. In each one the underlying cause was the desire for peace, much more so then the desire for genuine social revolution. The rebels were against the Kaiser personally and not necessarily against the institution of the monarchy. In fact, if William II had not waited so long to abdicate, the monarchy might have survived and the English system of constitutionally limited monarchy might have developed. It was a combination of the powerful desire for peace and the feeling that the Kaiser stood in its way, that led to the precipitous proclamation of the republic on November 9. Philip Scheidemann, who made this announcement, seems to have acted out of momentary inspiration. It "was the logical conclusion of a lost war," he wrote, "of unmatched privation and of loathing of the war mongers....It was the protest against the continuation of an utterly hopeless slaughter....It was the day on which it was impossible to carry on any longer."

This may be so, but another important reason was that Scheidemann wanted to forestall a Bolshevik-type revolution, which he thought the Sparticists were preparing. He also feared that Ebert had secret plans to restore the monarchy and wanted to face him Whether Ebert actually wanted to restore the monarchy is an open question, but there is no doubt that a certain amount of revolutionary agitation had been going on during the latter part of the war. The Independent Socialists and later the Spartakus League were at the center of this activity. Ledebour claimed that revolutionary plans had been laid as early as 1916. These plans included a general strike to bring the war to a revolutionary end. Propaganda and illegal literature was distributed in the army and navy. But the Majority socialists took over the strike and steered it to non-revolutionary ends.

On October 5, 1918 the Independent socialists issued a call for a "socialist republic" as part of a world-wide movement. A committee of "revolutionary shop stewards" was formed and began to collect arms. A planned general strike for November 6 fell through, however, because the Independents could not agree among themselves and the police arrested some of their leaders. But the "revolutionary shop stewards," decided to act on their own and strike on the 9th of November. This may have been the reason for Scheidemann's proclamation of the republic on that day.

Yet these were the actions of a small radical minority and they had very little to do with the actual outbreak of revolution. That happened quite independently in Kiel and Munich. What existed in Germany then, was a revolutionary situation, in the sense that there was widespread despair, stimulated by the military collapse, apprehension about Bavarian separatism and a considerable amount of Revolutionsfurcht, or fear of revolution. Because of this the government of Prince Max made some last minute efforts at democratic reforms. But they came too late. The whole situation was so volatile that any incident would topple the whole structure. That incident was provided by the sailor's revolt in Kiel.


The revolt at Wilhelmshaven and Kiel on October 30 was stimulated by a rumor which said that the German fleet had been readied for a last ditch effort to attack the English fleet in the North Sea. The morale of the sailors was already low, aggravated by the monotony of inactive ship life, larger and better food rations for officers and the harsh discipline.

They were willing to listen to the anti-war propaganda of the Independent Socialists and thought that an attack now, while armistice negotiations were underway, was wholly senseless and suicidal. They also believed that their commanders were acting without government consent. So the men passed a resolution stating their refusal to take the offensive. The officers replied by arresting some of the sailors, which led to a mass demonstration of the men on November 3. These demonstrations were fired on, resulting in 8 deaths and 29 wounded. The incident sparked considerable excitement in the surrounding area and in radical circles. The Kiel workers joined the movement on November 4 by creating the first soldiers. and workers' council in Germany to defy the existing authorities.

But defiance and revolution are two different things. The revolters did not have any sense of having ignited a revolution. The Workers' and Soldiers' Council demanded release of political prisoners, freedom of speech and press, abolition of censorship, better conditions for the men, and that no orders be given for the fleet to take the offensive. That does not constitute a revolution. In fact the council even went so far as to guarantee the inviolability of private property. When Noske, the Majority Socialist expert on military affairs, was sent to Kiel to restore order, he had no problem in doing so. However, the situation in the country was such that the Kiel incident reverberated and the movement soon spread to other cities.

On November 5 one northern newspaper wrote: "The revolution is on the march: What happened in Kiel will spread throughout Germany. What the workers and soldiers want is not chaos, but a new order; not anarchy, but the social republic." The pattern of development was quite similar everywhere soldiers and workers councils took over local authority. In all cases the men in these councils were socialists, mostly Majority Socialists, and Independents. Only in a few instances did Spartacists control the councils.

The sailors revolt in Kiel thus inadvertently instigated the revolution, although the sailors had no such aim in the beginning. It was only in the course of events that this incident became integrated with similar but quite independent happenings in Munich and Berlin. Once this occurred the whole movement took on the character of a revolution.


In Munich a more clear-cut revolutionary movement evolved when Austria-Hungary capitulated and left Bavaria exposed to invasion. The population became frightened and turned to the Independent Socialists for leadership, because they were well-known peace advocates. Separatist feelings, always strong in Bavaria, accompanied the peace movement. The Independents, under the mercurial Kurt Eisner, rode both issues to prominence.

A large meeting of workers planned by the Majority Socialists for November 4, called for unity of the socialist parties, for peace and certain minimal reforms. A mass demonstration on the 7th, carried on by thousands of workers, again was orderly and made similar demands: bread and peace, the eight-hour day and elimination of the dynasty. The Majority Socialists warned against Bavarian separatism and emphasized that they were not calling for strikes or revolution. They only wanted to create a "peoples state." The people went home quite unaware of what was about to transpire.

In the early morning hours of November 8 Kurt Eisner and the Independents seized the initiative. They organized a "Constituent Soldiers' Workers' and Peasants' Council." and this body in turn proclaimed the establishment of a Bavarian Democratic and Social Republic, headed by Kurt Eisner. This event took the Munich population by surprise. Eisner included the peasants because he knew that without them no movement could succeed in Bavaria. For the same reason he promised that Bavaria would remain the "free state" it had become. He formed a cabinet of Majority Socialists, Independents and several prominent professors. While people milled in the streets and some pillaged at the beginning, order soon returned everywhere by the evening of the 8th.

Meanwhile, the new provisional government of Bavaria promised peace, a constitutional convention, the security of property and person, the maintenance of order, and the retention of all government officials. For the country as a whole Eisner's group sought a "United States of Germany," including Austria, the convening of a constitutional convention, democratization, equal and free status of all religious denominations and a national, state-controlled educational system. But on the crucial revolutionary question of economics, the government, while reaffirming its socialist beliefs, deferred socialization. "It seems impossible for us to transfer industry into the possession of the community at a time when the productive forces of the country are almost exhausted. It is impossible to socialize when there is hardly anything to socialize."

The revolution in Bavaria had definite significance for the revolution in the rest of Germany. This was more than a local revolt of sailors. Eisner's actions in Munich pushed the socialist leaders in Berlin to more urgent and immediate action. The proclamation of a republic in Bavaria alleviated the fears among North German republicans that "monarchist" Bavaria would secede from the Reich if a a republic were proclaimed. The unified action of Majority and Independent Socialists in Bavaria also set the pattern of cooperation in other parts of the country.


In Berlin the two major issues were the armistice and the abdication of the Kaiser. Both the government and the public believed that the armistice would be easier to negotiate if William and the entire ruling class were removed from responsibility. The interrelation of these two questi

ons became the foundation for the policy of the Majority Socialists who came to occupy the key positions as events progressed. Two of them, Philip Scheidemann and Gustav Bauer had already joined the cabinet of Prince Max when the reform of the constitution began. On November 2 they began to put pressure on Max to secure the abdication of the Kaiser, but they also asked their followers to restrain from striking on November 4. But pressured from the Left, the Majority Socialist party executive presented a list of demands to Prince Max on November 6:

1. freedom of assembly;
2. abdication of the Kaiser and the Crown Prince by November 8;
3. greater representation of the SPD in the cabinet, and
4. changes in the Prussian cabinet in line with the majority parties in the Reichstag.

They wanted "freedom, not terror" as the Party newspaper explained. "Not dictatorship but democracy: Not callous experimentation on the living body of society, but a planned construction of a new socialist economic order based upon scientific knowledge and practical experience." All the demands were accepted by the imperial government except the abdication, because the Kaiser still hesitated to take that obvious step. So the socialists agreed to postpone their ultimatum until November 9, but said that the postponement was to allow the completion of the armistice negotiations.

Meanwhile, the Independents and Spartacists continued their preparation for an uprising. Some of their leaders were arrested by the police and the revolutionary shop stewards then prepared for revolutionary action to protest these arrests.

By the evening of November 8 there still was no news from the emperor's headquarters. The socialist ministers and undersecretaries then all resigned from Max's cabinet. The SPD called a meeting of the Greater Berlin Trade Union Council for 8:00 a.m. on the next day and a 12-men action committee was ready to carry out a general strike if the emperor did not abdicate. The general strike and mass demonstrations were ordered by the SPD on the morning of November 9. A Workers' and Soldiers' council was formed and the regiments and troops stationed in Berlin were won over largely through the hard work of Otto Wels.

Meanwhile, five Majority Socialists, including Ebert and Scheidemann went to see Prince Max. They informed him that the troops had joined their cause and that a new democratic government had to be formed. When Ebert was asked whether he wanted to take power on the basis of the constitution or the Soldiers' and Workers' Council, he replied, "the constitution... Prince Max than had no choice but to announce the anticipated abdication of the Kaiser, although no word had been received from that reluctant potentate. Prince Max turned over his office to Ebert and the latter, signing himself as "Reich chancellor," issued a proclamation.

This announcement of the new government clearly indicates that it did not have in mind a Russian-type revolution. "The new government," he said, will be a people's government. Its goal will be to bring peace to the German people as soon as possible, and to establish firmly the freedom which it has achieved." The emphasis on maintaining legal continuity clearly shows that Ebert believed the victory of the revolution had been achieved by the transfer of power from Prince Max to himself. He also emphasized peace and adequate supply of food, because he knew that was the reason why the revolutionary situation had arisen in the first place. Ebert was interested in creating a democratic state. Perhaps, he might even have been satisfied with a constitutional monarchy as long as the new state were founded via a constituent assembly.

But the press of human emotion in the streets soon made this carefully planned scenario obsolete. Eisner's proclamation of a republic in Bavaria and the agitation of the Independents and Spartacists forced the Majority Socialists to proclaim a republic before the Constituent Assembly had met. A mass demonstration of Berlin workers swarmed around the Reichstag building, while Scheidemann decided to take things in his own hand. At 2:00 p.m. on November 9 he mounted the balcony and proclaimed the republic to the crowd.

In his memoirs he says that he did it to avoid Liebknecht proclamation of a soviet republic and Ebert's secret plan to restore the monarchy. At any rate when Scheidemann came in from the balcony he was met with horrified anger by Ebert. "You have no right to proclaim the republic," said Ebert. "What becomes of Germany-whether she becomes a republic or something else-a constituent assembly must decide." But what was done was done.

Ebert now made an effort to create socialist unity by offering to share power with the Independents on an equal basis, although the latter were greatly outnumbered in the Reichstag. After considerable debate among themselves, the Independents decided to join the government if the following conditions were met.

1. the entire cabinet should be socialist;
2. political power should be vested in the Soldiers' and Workers' Councils; and
3. the Constituent Assembly should be postponed until the revolution was consolidated.

The Majority socialists met these conditions and the Independents joined the government with Haase becoming co-chairman alongside Ebert. The resulting Council of Peoples Representatives set for itself the "realization of the socialist program." On the following day (November 10) all the dynastic rulers of the local states abdicated and were replaced by revolutionary governments of one type or another. The new government signed the armistice dictated by Marshall Foch. Thus the war came to an end and most Germans believed the aims of the revolution had thus been achieved.

It was a bloodless revolution-that is if we can call it a revolution. Only 15 people lost their lives in Berlin on November 9. Theodore Wolff, the editor of the Berliner Tageblatt, called it "the greatest of all revolutions." But Ernst Troeltsch, the noted historian and religious philosopher, has given us a more realistic description:

"Sunday, November 10 was a wonderful autumn day. The citizens went as usual in droves to walk in the Grünewald. No elegant toilette, only Bürger, many obviously and consciously clad in simple garb. Everything somewhat subdued, like people whose destiny is being decided somewhere far off in the distance but who nevertheless are assured and at ease that things went off as well as they did. Streetcars and subways are running as usual, a guarantee that everything was in order for the immediate needs-and food supplies. On all faces there was written: salaries are being paid."

Source: Koppel S. Pinson, Modern Germany: Its History and Civilization, 2nd ed. (Macmillan, 1966), 350ff.