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.
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
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
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
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
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
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'
3. the Constituent Assembly should be postponed until the revolution was
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.