The 1918 German Revolutions

Did The German Revolution Of 1918 Fail To Establish Solid Foundations For Democracy? By Suzanne Francis

The 1918 revolution was Germany’s best chance to undergo political modernisation. Until that date she had been ruled by a succession of authoritarian monarchs who had strictly controlled all political power and prevented progression to a more progressive form of government. This tradition of authoritarianism made it all the more difficult for Germany and her people to accept any democratic reform. Thus, the Revolution of 1918 was hampered from the start. Indeed, many historians question whether it was a genuine revolution at all, and Pinson argues it was more a "collapse" than revolution. It is certainly true that the German people, especially the soldiers, were weary of the war and so directed their anger against the Kaiser and Prince Max. However, this anger was directed more against the persons of Wilhelm and Max rather than against the institution of monarchy itself: Germans wanted peace first and foremost and the Kaiser appeared to be impeding this process. The Revolution was ignited by the revolt of sailors stationed at Kiel and an examination of their motives would prove useful for the reasons for the Revolution as a whole. The sailors resented the strict discipline of their officers and the morale was generally low. This situation was made worse when a final offensive against the British fleet in the North Sea was ordered. This useless gesture incensed the sailors and the demonstrated against it. The sailors were fired upon and eight were killed, prompting a general mutiny. Sailors Councils were formed and they demanded not the revolutionary overthrow of the government, but merely that the government would listen to their grievances. They did however demand a thorough democratisation of the army, which was quite something. However, their demands were part of the "bloodless revolution" which followed the mutiny.

Historians argue that the monarchy offered no resistance to Revolution - however it was only when the Kaiser was persuaded that his Generals and ministers would no longer support him he reluctantly abdicated on the 9th of November. Prince Max handed over the seals of office to Ebert because he believed he was "a man who would fight Revolution tooth and nail" (Strange because Ebert was the leader of a revolutionary party). He perhaps believed, as Ebert hoped that a constitutional monarchy would be democratically elected. Ebert had been said to have styled himself Reich Chancellor but he in fact stressed his power was temporary and aimed for a national assembly as soon as possible. He stressed the continuity between himself and the previous government. It seems apparent that to him the main victory of the Revolution was won on the day that power passed to him. Thus, while it is true that the old order was in a virtually untenable position by November 1918, it did not truly collapse without a fight. In fact the Imperial government introduced many democratic changes in order to try and maintain their position, for example, universal suffrage and the secret ballot, but this was too small a measure and too late. Therefore, the Social Democrats, the "official liquidators", were forced into power.

It is important to investigate what kind of government the Revolution established. The Majority Socialists and the Independent Socialists were equally represented in the cabinet. The SDP leaders saw this as the best form of government to bridge the gap until the elections could be organised. However, the power of this government was restricted to Berlin, and then only certain areas of the city. Thus, Ebert realised that he would have to share power with the bodies who had done the most to bring about the Revolution: the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils. Elections to an Executive Body of the Committee were organised and the SPD and the Independent Socialists were against equally represented. To appease the left wing supporters the government placed all political power in this body - but the control of the day-to-day of government, the real power in the country, was left with the provisional government, and the Executive Committee could only affect a change by withdrawing their support. Thus the Revolution had succeeded installing a less than revolutionary government into power, and this has been interpreted as a mere continuation of the Imperial system, simply with the monarchy removed.

Nevertheless it was not long before the divisions in the approaches of the two main Socialist parties began to become clear. The SPD were firm adherents of constitutional prerogatives and refused to implement socialist legislation, believing this choice should be left to the German electorate. However, the Independents were more aware of the general lack of enthusiasm for democracy - or at least socialism - in the population. They believed that socialism measures such as the socialisation of the means of production should be undertaken in order to consolidate the Revolution before they relinquished power. Many historians cite the failure of this to happen as one of the main failure’s of the revolution - however, the precariousness of Germany’s economic situation meant undertaking radical economic policies could have unbalanced the system completely, and this is what the SDP leadership was trying to avoid. Their main preoccupation was the maintenance of law and order and the removal of anything that threatened to upturn the already precarious situation. This attitude can be seen in the proclamation that Ebert made on the 9th of October, shortly after Scheidemann’s accidental proclamation of the German Republic. Ebert said "Fellow Citizens! I implore you most urgently to leave the streets and maintain calm and order". There was no jubilant recognition of the success of the Revolution - instead a cautious approach and a concern for law and order prevailed.

This attitude was reflected in what many historians cite as the prime failure of the Revolution: the failure to remove established élites from power. The major industrialists failed to stand against the Revolution, but signed a treaty with the Trade Unions. They were then generally ignored by the new government - it would have been hard to dislodge them without threatening the whole fabric of the German economy. Similarly the bureaucrats of the Imperial period remained, and were willing to compromise with the new government because they believed Ebert to be the successor of Prince Max, yet they maintained most of the pre-revolution ideals of the Imperial period that were to hinder the Weimar Republic.

However, the main group that proved troublesome to the Weimar Republic was the army, and specifically the officer corps. The "Ebert-Groener Pact" is perhaps the most controversial element of the Revolution and the one that the Majority Socialists are most criticised for. Ebert promised to maintain the position of the officer corps in return for their help. It was not feared that the Officers would start a counter-revolution, but it was seen they were needed to carry off demobilisation. A greater factor behind co-operation with the Officers was the very real fear of a left-wing revolt. The Officers in turn were worried that the new government would support the deposition of the Corps and allow the country to slide into civil war. Eventually an agreement was reached and Ebert managed to prevent the implementation of the "Hamburg Points", (endorsed by the All-German Congress of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils), which called for the abolition of the Corps in favour of elected officers, and the replacement of the standing army with a people’s militia. Ebert’s deeply patriotic beliefs and his fear of left-wing counter-revolution forced him to vigorously oppose this. This was surely the Majority Socialists greatest mistake - to allow the deeply reactionary and conservative Corps to remain in place and posed a threat to the long term threat to the survival of democracy. In fact it did not even secure the short term survival of democracy, as when it came for the army to put down the sailors’ revolt of the 23rd December 1919, the soldiers proved ineffectual and sympathetic to the sailors’ cause. In future Ebert realised that they would need the support of another armed body, and this came about in January 1919, with the Sparticist uprising. A new body was formed, the "freikorps", and they effectively crushed the revolution. Especially after the murder of two prominent Communists, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the Majority Socialists were shocked by the brutality of their new allies (at least the rank-and-file were - the leaders did not try to stop the violence). However, they were powerless to stop them as they relied on their support. Thus the government had come a long way from the Revolutionary ideals and the most important repositories of antidemocratic forces were still in existence.

This helped to widen the gap between the SPD and the two other proletarian groups, the Independent Socialists and the Sparticists. This division was the primary reasons behind the Revolution’s failure to consolidate itself and provide a solid basis for democracy. Nevertheless, the SPD cannot be blamed entirely - to them democratic elections were more important than anything else, and their electoral success before the war perhaps led them to take the Socialist mood of the country for granted. Therefore it came as a surprise to them when the election resulted in no socialist majority. They had failed to account of an important group - the middle classes. They had no real revolutionary zeal - at least not for socialism, though they may have for democracy - and they were just trying to do their best for the maintenance of law and order and solve the immediate crises - such as the food shortage. This was an important lesson to be learnt, as in the early years of the Weimar Republic the satisfaction of the people’s physical and material needs was essential for stability. However, they were "morbidly suspicious" of the left-wing and thus failed to take account of their desires and try to keep them on side. After the Revolution the SDP’s efforts were recognised, they were hated by the left-wing as having "betrayed the Revolution" and by the right-wing as "November traitors" who "stabbed (Germany) in the back", leading to her defeat in the First World War. Their failure however, was to underestimate the forces opposed to democracy.

The Independent Socialists were less naive and they realised the acute need to undertake socialisation of the state and to remove elements opposed to democracy - however they constantly waivered between the left and right of proletarian politics and were unable to keep their movement unified. The division between the intolerance of the moderate SPD and the radical KPD reflected the division of the proletarian movement, which was unfortunate as they offered the best possible means to bridge the gap between the two. They believed that there should be a "dictatorship of the Proletariat" by the Worker’ and Soldiers’ Councils until, as Hilferding said, "The bourgeoisie had been driven out of its most important positions of power", and he believed that "it (was) impossible to secure a firm footing with democratic means in a country which had been so reactionary as Germany, and where reactionary mentality, the belief in the supremacy of force, is so deeply engraved in the minds of the citizens".

They were mistaken to boycott the elections to the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Central Council on the 19th December 1918, as this meant the SPD was an easy majority and it made the Council all the more easily dismissed in January 1919. They thus fell "tragically between two stools and so exerted little positive influence over the course of events." They finally, and perhaps inevitably, divided - with some joining the KPD in 1919 and the rest joining the SPD in 1922: had they remained together they might have bridged the gap between the two working class movements.

Finally, some blame must be attributed to the Sparticists. If it had not been for their utopian dreams of re-enacting the Russian Revolution and their generally radical nature they might have been able to prevent the deep rifts in the proletarian movement and the need for radical counter action by the SPD leaders, in the form of the "freikorps". They failed to perceive the general fear of "Russian conditions" in Germany and thus did not work towards a realistic compromise.

Therefore, it would seem that the German Revolution really failed to establish firm foundations for the development of democracy. The division within the proletarian movement and the failure to remove the traditional élites meant that the Revolution failed to pave the way sufficiently for democracy. This had serious repercussions for the long term stability of the Weimar Republic, nevertheless, it did not mean the Revolution was "doomed from the beginning" as Bessel’s negative interpretation would suggest. If the economic situation had been stabilised more quickly after the war then it seems likely that democracy could have stood a chance and the Weimar Republic might have consolidated itself, despite the existence of the pre-Revolutionary élites.

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