The euphoria and tragedy of the German revolution

Second of two articles on Two revolutions that ended the Great War. For Part 1, The Russian Revolution and the demoralisation of the German Army, click here.

When finally the dam broke in October 1918, the flood of the German, Austrian, Hungarian and Bulgarian revolutions carried off the filth of two empires, the Austro-Hungarian and German, numerous monarchs and princes, including Wilhelm II of Germany, Ludwig III of Bavaria, Karl of Austria (who was also Károly IV of Hungary), Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria), two centuries-old European dynasties, the Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns, and the inter-imperialist war. Local insurrections swept away capitalist rulers and institutions in fifty cities, replacing them with elected councils of workers, soldiers, and peasants, and brought the rule of the bourgeoisie in three national states teetering on the brink.

Revolutionary sailors aboard the battleship Prinzregent Luitpold in Wilhelmshaven, 6 November 1918. The placard says “Soldiers’ committee of the Prinzregent Luitpold. Long live the socialist republic” Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J0908-0600-002 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The German revolution began with a mutiny in the North Sea fleet. In a final, desperate attempt to turn around the deteriorating military situation, the German admirals ordered out the navy to attack the British navy in the English Channel; at the naval base at Wilhelmshaven, the sailors acted to prevent the ships leaving port. A thousand sailors were jailed in reprisal, but a mass solidarity movement sprang up to defend them involving the sailors on board the ships, the workers in the port of Kiel and nearby cities, and before long, the soldiers sent to put down the rebellion.

On November 3, officers opened fire on an unarmed demonstration, killing eight. The next day, the workers responded with a general strike. The imprisoned sailors were freed by their comrades, sailors raised the red flag on most of the ships, and an armed demonstration of 20,000 soldiers and sailors marched through Kiel. A newly-formed workers’ and soldiers’ council took control of the city.

Sailors in Wilhelmshaven demonstrate after the 1918 uprising. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1976-067-10A / CC-BY-SA 3.0

By November 6 the revolt had spread to Lübeck, Hamburg, and the other big cities of the North Sea coast; by November 8, to the Rhineland, Bavaria, and cities across Germany. Mass strikes and demonstrations broke out, soldiers joined the revolt.

Red flag flies over the Town Hall in Bremen as Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council proclaims the Bremen Revolutionary Republic from the balcony, 15 November 1918.

Wherever the authorities resisted, the key buildings were stormed by armed workers and soldiers. Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils assumed control of the cities. In Munich, United Social Democratic Party (USPD) leader Kurt Eisner proclaimed a republic based on workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ councils.

Friedrich Ebert, SPD leader appointed Reich Chancellor as monarchy disintegrated.

The Social Democratic Party (SPD) continued its efforts to defuse the revolutionary crisis and hold back the mass movement. In particular, it tried to hold onto Berlin – and to save the monarchy. “Fellow citizens! I urgently appeal to you: leave the streets! Maintain law and order!” read a November 9 appeal from SPD leader Friedrich Ebert, as colossal demonstrations gathered in Berlin. Ebert had just been appointed Reich Chancellor by Prince Max von Baden in a last-ditch effort to preserve the monarchy through coalition with the SPD.

Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, leaders of the Spartacus League (also known as the Internationale group) a communist current in German revolution of 1918

A Berlin workers’ council, led by the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, issued a call for a general strike for “peace, freedom, and bread” and “a socialist republic with all that that implies.” The Internationale group (Spartacists), a revolutionary group led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, issued an appeal to workers and soldiers. Liebknecht had been released from prison on October 23, where he was greeted by a demonstration of 20,000 revolutionary Berlin workers. Luxemburg had been released from prison in Breslau, and had only just arrived in Berlin.

The appeal warned:  “The same “Socialists” who for four years served as the government’s pimps have in recent weeks been stalling you day after day with promises of a “people’s government” a parliamentary state, and other such rubbish. Now they are trying everything to weaken your struggle and pacify the movement…

“Soldiers! Do as the sailors from the fleet have done. Join with your brothers in work clothes. Do not let yourself be used against your brothers. Do not obey the officers’ orders. Do not fire on freedom fighters…

“Workers and soldiers! The next goals of your struggle must be:

  1. Free all civilian and military prisoners
  2. End Germany’s division into separate states and abolish royal dynasties
  3. Elect workers’ and soldiers’ councils. Elect delegates to them from all factories and military units
  4. Establish relations immediately with other German workers’ and soldiers’ councils
  5. Transfer all governmental power to representative of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils
  6. Establish contact with the international proletariat, especially with the Russian workers’ republic.

“Workers and soldiers! Now prove that you are strong enough and that you are capable enough to wield power. Long live the socialist republic!”

Philipp Scheidemann, SPD leader, hastily proclaimed a republic on November 9 in order to forestall Liebknecht’s proclamation of a socialist republic on same day.

Events moved quickly. On November 9, speaking at a huge rally of Berlin workers, SDP leader Philipp Scheidemann judged that it was impossible to save the monarchy; he announced the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II and proclaimed a republic. The SPD succeeded in drawing a section of the USPD into a coalition government. The armistice with the Allies was signed two days later.

Scheidemann proclaims the republic from balcony of the Reichstag building, 9 November

News of the revolutionary advances in Austria and Germany was greeted with jubilation in Russia (and, at least among the revolutionary leadership, some trepidation as well.) In a memoir written in 1925, Bolshevik leader Karl Radek wrote, “Our intelligence reports showed that the noose around Soviet Russia was getting tighter every day. The Germans were not only occupying Ukraine, but …were growing stronger in Finland, and Petrograd was exposed to attack. In our assessment, the Germans, reckoning with the possibility of returning Belgium to the Allies, were therefore planning to capture Moscow and Petrograd in order to have a bargaining chip in their hands. These apprehensions were fully confirmed in a series of memoirs that came out later, after the German revolution… Suddenly news came of the breakthrough at the Bulgarian front…[and] the glad news came of the beginning of the revolution in Austria…

Lenin in March 1919

“[On the morning of November 3] from every corner of the city demonstrations were marching toward the Moscow Soviet. From the balcony of the soviet we looked onto a sea of heads that came in waves from Strastnaya Square and Mokhovaya Street. Suddenly there was shouting that grew like a hurricane. A car was moving slowly through the crowd. We realised that Ilyich [Lenin] unable to stay any longer in the Kremlin, had come out for the first time since he had been wounded [in an assassination attempt on 30 August]… His face showed excitement and at the same time he seemed profoundly worried… When Ilyich appeared on the balcony tens of thousands of workers burst into cheers. I have never seen such a sight. Workers, both men and women, and Red Army soldiers filed past until late evening. The world revolution had arrived. The masses of people were listening to its iron step. Our isolation had ended.”

Karl Radek, Bolshevik leader assigned to German revolution, had prior experience in German workers movement

Radek recalled how news of the victory in Germany was received by workers in Russia a few days later. “In the factories it was indescribable; I had never seen such enthusiasm. I spoke at the Prokhorov textile factory. I said that the German revolution was not only our greatest victory but at the same time our greatest duty. Only that summer we had learned what hunger was. But they, the German workers, had lived for three years on a couple of ounces of bread and beets. I told them we had to help the German revolution with bread even out of the little we had. I watched the faces of the audience very closely. At meetings, in a difficult moment, my eyes invariably search for the weakest link in the chain. I always choose the most backward worker and speak exclusively to him or her, because if you convince that listener you can be sure you have convinced them all. But now before me were faces full of enthusiasm. I could not find anyone indifferent or tired. ‘Even if we starve, we will help our German brothers!’ My exclamation was unanimously picked up by the masses of women workers.”

Spartacist leader Karl Liebknecht addresses a mass rally of workers in the 1918-19 revolution

The Soviets also warned the German workers’ councils, “Workers, soldiers, and sailors of Germany: so long as you tolerate a government consisting of princes, capitalists, and Scheidemanns [SPD leader], then you do not really have power… In the armistice agreement they will arrange with the English and French capitalists for you to surrender your weapons. Soldiers and sailors, do not give up your arms, or the united capitalists will rout you. It is essential that you genuinely take power everywhere, arms in hand, and build a workers’ soldiers’ and sailors’ government headed by Liebknecht.” [quoted in The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power, p59]

The reason for Lenin’s worry was outlined in a resolution adopted by the Moscow Soviet on 22 October [CW Vol28 p128-30]. “Soviet power finds itself in the following peculiar situation: on the one hand, we have never been so close to an international proletarian revolution as we are now; on the other hand, we have never been in such a perilous position as we are now. There are no longer two approximately equal groups of imperialist plunderers, devouring and weakening each other. There remains a single group of victors, the Anglo-French imperialists, which intends to divide the whole world among the capitalists. It intends to overthrow Soviet power in Russia at all costs and replace it by bourgeois power. It is preparing now to attack Russia from the South, through the Dardanelles and the Black Sea, for example, or through Bulgaria and Rumania. Moreover, at least a part of the Anglo-French imperialists evidently hope that the German Government, by a direct or tacit agreement with them, will withdraw its troops from the Ukraine only as the latter becomes occupied by Anglo-French troops, so as not to allow the otherwise inevitable victory of the Ukrainian workers and peasants and their establishment of a Ukrainian workers’ and peasants’ government.

This is exactly the situation that developed in Ukraine, a major grain-producing region, a few weeks later. The terms of the armistice obliged Germany to evacuate its troops on the western front immediately, but to keep its forces in eastern Europe “to maintain order.” The Allied fleet quickly headed for the Black Sea to link up with the counter-revolution in Ukraine.

Berliners cut up a horse killed in street fighting for meat (probably January 1919). Photo:

With starvation already occurring in parts of both Germany and Russia, the question of food supplies tied the fate of the Russian and German working classes closely, and revealed the true class character of the government that had emerged from the German revolution.

The Soviet appeal to the German workers continued: “It is essential to link the fight for peace and freedom with the fight for bread. In Russia there is enough bread for you and us in the Ukraine, in the Kuban, and on the Don. That is why the English government is trying to get quickly through the Black Sea to south Russia, where it will help [the counter-revolutionary] Generals Denikin, Krasnov, and Skoropadsky snatch the workers’ bread. Our Red Army is fighting heroically against the bands of the workers’ enemies, who are also supported by your generals and the Scheidemann government. If you want bread, then it is essential that you act quickly, before the British steal it away. The German workers’, soldiers’, and sailors’ councils must immediately give the German soldiers in the Ukraine the order, by radio and by sending delegations. Krasnov’s forces are very weak. While the Red Army attacks these bands from the north, together we can crush them in a few weeks, and then there will be bread for you.”

The workers of Soviet Russia, themselves on the verge of hunger, sent two trains loaded with flour to Germany, but the Ebert-Scheidemann government rejected the aid for fear of upsetting the Allies. They preferred to accept an offer of grain from the United States, which stipulated that grain deliveries would only be considered “on condition that public order in Germany is genuinely established and maintained, and a just distribution of food supplies guaranteed.” The SPD underlined the meaning of this proviso: any further forward march of the revolution would result in the US cutting food shipments. (It was revealed later that it was the SPD itself which suggested this proviso to President Wilson.)

USPD leader Hugo Haase joined the Provisional government of Ebert and Scheidemann. Image: George Grantham Bain collection, Library of Congress

Radek’s memoir described the effect of the news that the German government had refused the aid. “I saw the face of the old woman textile worker from the Prokhorov factory who, even with hungry children at home, willingly sacrificed a piece of bread to help the German brothers. Her outstretched hand hung in midair. Haase, leader of the German revolution [Haase was co-chairman of the USPD and cabinet member assigned to foreign affairs] was receiving bread and fats from Wilson, leader of the American plutocracy. He did not need help from the Russian revolution. It was August 4  again: Judas Iscariot had committed his second betrayal.” [quoted in The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power  p66]. (August 4, 1914 was the date of the SPD betrayal and the start of the Great War.)

Luxemburg wrote one week later: “What has been accomplished? The monarchy has been swept away. Supreme governmental power has been handed over to the workers’ and soldiers’ representatives. But the monarchy was never the real enemy. It was only the cover, the figurehead for imperialism… Like all bourgeois governments, the monarchy was only the administrator for the ruling classes. The criminals who must be held responsible for the genocide are the imperialist bourgeoisie, the capitalist ruling class… this can not be dispatched in a twinkling by a few decrees from on high, but can be set in motion only through the conscious action of the urban and rural working people…

What is the present revolutionary government doing? It simply leaves the state as an administrative organism, from top to bottom, in the hands of yesterday’s supporters of Hohenzollern absolutism and tomorrow’s tools of the counter-revolution. It convenes the national constituent assembly, thereby creating a bourgeois counterweight to the workers’ and soldiers’ power, shunting the revolution onto the rails of bourgeois revolution, and conjuring away the socialist goals of the revolution.” [The Beginning, 18 November 1918].

Key SPD figures in the “Socialist government” which rescued capitalist rule: (L to R) Otto Landsberg, Philipp Scheidemann, Gustav Noske, who took prime responsibility for the bloody suppression of the working class in January 1919, Friedrich Ebert, and Rudolf Wissell. The USPD leaders Hugo Haase and Emil Barth also joined the government in November, but resigned in December 1918

Liebknecht added a few days later, “Between the political form of the German revolution up to now and its social content lies a gaping contradiction, which cries out for resolution… Its political form is that of proletarian action, its social content that of bourgeois reform… The “Socialist government” to the best of its ability, has preserved or restored the entire bourgeois state and administrative apparatus and the military machinery. It is extremely hard for the workers’ and soldiers’ councils to get any real control over these institutions… As the proletariat grows weaker in this way, all its mortal enemies are rapidly assembling… There is no time to lose, or else in a few weeks the proletariat will stand before the ruins of its hopes.” [Liebknecht, Where Matters Stand, in The German Revolution and the debate on Soviet Power, p86]

Armed demonstration by Berlin workers, 6 January 1919

When the ‘gaping contradiction’ was resolved, the resolution was in favour of the bourgeois power. In early January 1919, the working class was thrown back by a SPD-led counter-revolution, in the form of an armed assault on the Berlin workers’ movement. The SPD government goaded the revolutionaries into a premature showdown, and the minister responsible for military affairs, Gustav Noske unleashed against them forces of the Freikorps, anti-worker volunteer battalions recruited privately by right-wing officers. (The Freikorps later formed the nucleus of Hitler’s Storm Troopers.)  The workers of Berlin responded to the provocation with a series of massive armed demonstrations up to half a million strong. But due to indecisive and vacillating leadership from the Revolutionary Committee (made up of the USPD, Revolutionary Shop Stewards, and the newly-formed Communist Party) their strength was dissipated and defeated. The Communists paid a high price for their slowness to break politically with the centrists of the USPD and to organise independently of them.

Workers defend occupation of newspaper, Berlin, January 1919. Barricade is made of rolls of newsprint and bundled newspapers.

As an anti-working class dragnet spread through Berlin in the wake of the defeat, on January 15 the two outstanding experienced revolutionary leaders of the working class in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were captured and murdered by Freikorps troops.

Since the working class of Europe had failed to resolve the contradictions that lay behind the Great War in a revolutionary way, those contradictions remained in full force at its conclusion – in fact, the Versailles Treaty that cemented the armistice exacerbated them, and set the world on course for a new round of bloodletting.

Available from Pathfinder Press

The circumstances and reasons for the tragic defeat of 1919 are beyond the scope of this article. By far the best account that I know of this crucial but little-studied turning point in world history is the book The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power, which collects and translates the key documents from the period with excellent introductory information. Most of the information in this post is drawn from that book, which deserves serious study.

3 responses to “The euphoria and tragedy of the German revolution

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