The Weimar era was a turbulent, energetic, exciting, chaotic, liberating, and frightening period in German history. In strict terms, the Weimar Republic lasted from the summer of 1919, when the Constitution was passed, to the Nazi seizure of power on January 30, 1933. But the revolutionary period that began in late October 1918 with the sailors' mutiny in Kiel and continued through the winter and spring of 1919 decisively shaped the character of the Republic.
Four years of war had taken a huge toll on the German population. The massive death toll at the front affected nearly every German family. A large portion of the population suffered from hunger and malnutrition on account of food shortages, and from exhaustion from fourteen-hour days in the munitions factories that fueled the war machine. In 1916, strikes were already breaking out over wages, hours, and provisions. By 1917, the strikes had taken on a more political edge, and came with demands for an end to the war and, sometimes, with calls for the removal of the Kaiser. Women rioted in marketplaces and in shops. At times, the police even expressed sympathy for them and for all of the families in need of food and coal. But a combination of repressive tactics – e.g., sending striking workers directly to the front – and concessions surrounding wages and provisions kept the overall situation in check. Until the autumn of 1918.
A dual process of transformation developed in that dreary season marking the fourth year of war. On September 29, 1918, the supreme commanders of the German military, Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff, informed Kaiser Wilhelm II and Chancellor von Herling that Germany no longer had the resources to pursue the war. In their view, the country had to request a cease fire and power had to be transferred to the Reichstag. The Kaiser still held to the illusion that Germany would triumph in the war. After all, the German army still occupied vast stretches of Eastern Europe, far into Russia, a large swath of French territory, and all of Belgium. In the Ottoman Empire, German troops were spread over Anatolia and into the Caucasus.
But the Kaiser had to give in to his generals, who had abandoned the illusions of victory that they themselves once fostered. On October 3, 1918, Prince Max von Baden was appointed chancellor. For the first time in German history, Social Democrats joined the government. Prince Max initiated a reform process that amounted to a very significant democratization of the political order. At the same time, the government exchanged a series of notes with the United States government on the terms of the armistice. The Germans were banking on American generosity and President Wilson's claim that the war would result in a long-lasting democratic peace. The Americans, however, were proving not to be as magnanimous as Germany had hoped.
None of this was happening fast enough for the many Germans who had been so painfully affected by the war, and they directed their anger at the very institutions that had dragged Germany into the war in the first place: the military and the monarchy. Rank and file soldiers and sailors had come to resent the privileges accorded their officers, who were fed and quartered in finer circumstances. When sailors at Kiel were given orders to set out to sea – when everyone knew the war was drawing to a close – they wondered what kind of last-minute, pointless heroics the naval command had in mind. The sailors mutinied, touching off a revolutionary uprising that spread from Kiel to cities large and small throughout Germany.
The workers’ and soldiers’ councils were the most important invention of the Revolution. These grassroots democratic organizations designed to represent the interests of workers and soldiers became the main vehicle for popular demands for an end to the war, the establishment of democracy, better living conditions, and Socialism. They were loosely structured, often chaotic, but they gave workers and soldiers – and as well as artists and the many others who would soon form their own councils – a sense of power and possibility, and the confidence to take matters into their own hands.