GHDI logo

1. Beginnings: War and Revolution
print version

1. Beginnings: War and Revolution   |   2. Politics and Economics   |   3. Culture   |   4. Overveiw   |   5. Further Reading

It goes without saying that revolution is a turbulent affair. In the first days of November, soldiers began to stream back from the front, workers went out on strike, crowds gathered in demonstrations, and workers’ and soldiers’ councils met for hours on end. The situation was spinning out of control, and still there was no armistice. By that time, it had become clear that the United States would only agree to an armistice if the Kaiser abdicated. The popular movement that had mobilized within Germany was also demanding his removal. It fell to the newly appointed Quartermaster General, Wilhelm Groener, to inform the Kaiser that he and the entire royal and imperial family would have to abdicate. Prince Max turned over his office to the Social Democratic leader, Friedrich Ebert, who formed a new government composed of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the more radical Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). Ebert's second, Philipp Scheidemann, proclaimed the German Republic from the balcony of the Reichstag building. A couple of hundred meters away, Karl Liebknecht, the radical Socialist and soon-to-be co-founder of the Communist Party of Germany, proclaimed a socialist republic from the balcony of the royal palace. With a new government in place, the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.

This marked the start of a three-way power struggle that occurred amidst ongoing popular unrest and the full-scale demobilization of the armed forces and the economy. The new government, the Council of People's Representatives undertook a bracing democratization of the political system. But would Germany become a parliamentary republic, as the Social Democrats desired, or a council republic [Räterepublik], as more radical workers and the USPD demanded? And what would be the position of the old elites, the officers, business owners, large landholders, and high state officials who had dominated the Imperial system? Ebert drove hard for quick elections to a constitutional assembly, thereby hoping to marginalize the advocates of a council republic. Looming over him was a fear of Bolshevism, a sentiment shared by many Germans. Order had to be reestablished. "No experiments" was the SPD slogan. Ebert concluded a series of deals that, in essence, involved elite recognition of the new government and concessions in economic and social matters in exchange for the SPD's commitment to maintain the status, power, and privileges of the elites. Workers won trade-union recognition and the eight-hour work day in industry (seven and one-half hours in the mines). The army explicitly agreed to support the government; business and the state bureaucracy did so implicitly. In return, the government agreed to accept the existing order of command in the military, the sanctity of the civil service, and property rights. It was a devil's bargain that secured the Republic in 1918-19, but since the power of the old elites remained intact, it contributed to its destruction fourteen years later.

In 1918-19, Ebert triumphed. Amid serious unrest, including the Spartacist Uprising of January 1919 and the government's unleashing of the army and paramilitaries against radical workers, the country went to the polls and elected a constitutional assembly, which set at its task throughout the spring of 1919. The Weimar Coalition, comprised of the SPD, the Catholic Center Party, and the liberal German Democratic Party, formed the government. The economy began to revive, fed by an inflation-fueled export boom.

But the country remained in an anxious state. Near-civil war conditions reigned in some industrial areas, and no one knew what the final settlement of the war would entail. The victorious allies had convened outside of Paris to draft the final treaties that would formally end World War I. At the time, Germans still harbored the illusion that they could negotiate with the Allies. But when the terms of the treaty were ultimately revealed, Germans were uniformly shocked. The territorial losses were severe, the restrictions on the size of the armed forces deemed unfair. Germans viewed the loss of their colonies as unjust; they saw the seizure of their undersea telegraph cables as evidence of Allied vindictiveness. Worst of all, they were being forced to accept sole responsibility for the outbreak of the war, and this provided the basis for reparations, the sum of which had not yet been named.

The country was in shock, yet it had no choice. On June 28, 1919, five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Germany's representatives signed the peace treaty in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, the very same place where the German Reich was proclaimed in 1871. Six weeks later, on August 11, 1919, the Weimar Constitution came into force. It was a model liberal constitution, providing Germans with the most democratic political structure and the widest political and civil rights they had ever known. Despite all the upheavals of the preceding twelve months, Germany was at peace, the country intact, and it now had the legal basis for a functioning, liberal political order. Under dire conditions, Germans had overthrown the imperial system and had taken hold of political power. It should have been possible, on the verge of autumn 1919, for Germans to breathe a collective sigh of relief. But too many people still refused to accept the legitimacy of the Republic, too many political movements were chafing to challenge the constitutional order.

Page 2

first page < previous   |   next > last page