During the few short months at the end of 1918 to the beginning of 1919 Germany experienced military defeat, revolution and eventually republic. From the ashes of the old imperial Germany rose the phoenix of democracy. The events of the revolutions of those years were to shape the next fourteen years of what came to be known as the Weimar republic.
Read White p4-5, H+H 8-11
Weakness of German democracy
1914 and war. Burgfrieden
1917 Allied blockade, divisions in German society and virtual military dictatorship
August 1918. American troops and unrest
September 1918. “Revolution from above” Ludendorff, Prince Max of Baden. “Stab in the back” (Complete the activity from p14 in jotter)
October 1918. New Government. Kiel +Wilhelmshaven. Abdication of Kaiser. Ebert. Schiedemann. “Revolution from below”
10 November.1918. Ebert Groener pact (see p 20)
December 1919. USPD leave government.
January 1919. Spartacists. Noske. Leibknecht. Luxemburg
Historiography and analysis
Most essays require the student to analyse the revolutions in Germany at this time in the context of “missed opportunity” and the extent to which things changed as a result of the events of these years.
Eg. “To what extent was the transition to a parliamentary republic in 1918-1919 a ‘revolution from above’?
“The incomplete revolution” Can this label be usefully applied to the events of November 1918 in Germany?
“The aborted revolution “ (G. Craig) How useful is such a verdict on events within Germany 1918-1919?
“The democrats of 1918 came to power more because of their enemies’ weaknesses and failures than because of their own strengths”
Assess this verdict on the November Revolution
You should start off by attempting questions 1+2 on p23
Additional historiography analysis
“…a potential revolution which ran away into the sand rather than the genuine article “ (M. Hughes)
“ the structure of German society was hardly affected by the revolution” (W. Carr)
“..the revolution was a negative event…the mass of the German people had no wish for a break with the past” (W. Carr)
“Seen as a social revolution, the establishment of a new order in Germany 1918-1919 was a revolution that failed”(D. Peukert)
“…the revolutionary mass movement was essentially a failure…a revolution that ran aground” (E. Kolb)
However in a spirited defence of working class consciousness Chris Harman (“Lost Revolution”) makes a claim for support for revolutionary change by the majority of the German population.
Up to the 1970s most historians argued that the actions of the government from October 1918 were as radical as could be achieved and had the backing of most of the German people. As Brecht suggested “By far the larger section of the working classes were behind them” The fact that the new government failed to dismantle the old state apparatus was because they were terrified of Bolshevism. Despite the arguments of East German historians that Ebert was the tool of the capitalists (See p22) this acceptance of the moderate changes in Germany has held sway.
However recent work has challenged this analysis. Historians now believe that the chance of a soviet style revolution in Germany was minimal and that Ebert over-reacted. There was a broader movement which wanted more radical change and this would have strengthened the Weimar regime had they been allowed to.
“Thus Ebert’s unintentional exaggeration of the danger of a soviet-style revolution and his over-reliance on the old elite unwittingly contributed to the eventual failure of the Weimar Republic”
The course open to the new government seems more flexible than hitherto imagined, they could have, for instance, taken a firmer line with the old army leaders. They failed to do this because they trusted the old elites to remain loyal to the new holders of power and they basically mistrusted the spontaneous mass movement. Most local research shows that the workers and soldiers/sailors councils were very moderate and with government support would have “found a democracy to succeed the revolution” (Rosenberg)
So what of the events of January 1919? Many contemporaries and historians are dismissive of the Spartacists and their supporters and limit their importance to a footnote in history as far as working class revolt is concerned. Allegedly during a Berlin demonstration the cry was heard. “Comrades! Maintain discipline. Do not walk on the grass.” Lenin suggested that the revolutionaries “could not even storm a railway station unless they’d first bought a railway ticket” It is fair to say that the mood of January was for more radical change and the hard left failed to harness this.
Rosa Luxemburg in the Spartacist Manifesto claimed that the achievement of their aims did not need “bombs, putsches, riots and anarchy”
So in conclusion why was there an “improvised democracy” and an “incomplete revolution”?
Strength of traditional elites and their willingness to temporarily ally with the socialist government
Brutal reaction of the Noske and the Freikorps to crush the Spartacists
Lack of a strong working class radical tradition
Unpreparedness of the Spartacist leaders
Although all the ingredients for a revolution were there, the evidence points to large scale support for the new regime. Revolutionaries could not persuade the not to vote and in fact 73% voted for democratic parties.
“There can be little doubt that a revolutionary situation prevailed in Germany in early 1918” (Layton)
“This can be challenged on the grounds that, whilst a revolutionary ysituation existed in 1918, it did not actually produce a revolution”
“it is difficult to argue that the social democrats were even reluctant revolutionaries” (Lee)
“There are however serious doubts about the nature and real extent of the supposed revolutionary changes. German society was left almost untouched by events and there was no attempt to reform the key institutions. The civil service, judiciary and armyall remained intact as did the structure of the economy” (Layton)