The November Revolution

Westfront, Stellungskrieg
The historical estuary that is World War I: German mounted infantry gallop over a captured British trench in the Kaiserschlacht. Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv.

Sometimes a slip of the tongue or a rhetorical flourish can decide the shape of government, or the future of entire nations. At least once in Germany’s history it conjured an entire republic into being, one that no one had asked for but one that many would die trying to save before it collapsed.

That something had to change in Germany by November 1918 was undeniable. For four years the German Empire had been engaged in a brutal confrontation with a rotating cast of nations, mainly Britain and France alongside first the Russian Empire and then the United States, known as the Entente. The war had been started by “some damn foolish thing in the Balkans”, in this case the assassination of Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand. One thing had led to another. A threatening ultimatum to Serbia from Austria-Hungary, backed by a blank check of force from the inept Kaiser Wilhelm II, had given Russia the excuse to mobilize. Which had in turn sent every other nation’s fighting men scrambling for their guns and hunting for the train timetables. Plans years in the making were enacted, only to fail to survive contact with the enemy. A million men had died in the first month before the trenches took shape and men burrowed underground to hide from machine guns and artillery.[1]

The Reich had waged war on multiple fronts, mobilizing nearly 14 million men and taking increasingly desperate military and diplomatic gambles to break the Entente. The conflict had already carried a horrifying price. In addition to staggering number of men swallowed up by the western front’s trench war, the longstanding blockade by the Royal Navy had exacted a toll on the civilian population of Germany. A disastrous frost from 1916-1917 had destroyed much of the potato crop, prompting the “Turnip Winter”. As 1918 began caloric intake in domestic Germany had dropped to a third of prewar levels. By war’s end the blockade was estimated to have contributed to the deaths of 700,000 German civilians through preventable disease and starvation. The Reich had dealt with the national siege by effectively centralizing command of the entire domestic economy under the “silent dictatorship” of the Deutsches Heer (Army) General Staff; helmed by Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg.

Friedrich Ebert
Friedrich Ebert in the mid 1920’s. The stress and exhaustion is fairly visible. Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv

If there had been any final moment when Germany could have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat it had been the spring offensive of 1918, appropriately dubbed the Kaiserschlacht.[2]  But the attack had run out of steam as all the others had. Germany’s final high tide halted just 40 miles from Paris. Now fresh waves of American troops were swarming forwards on the western front. On August 8, 1918 the Entente launched its Hundred Days Offensive, starting with a major breakthrough the Germans dubbed “black week”.[3] By September a 19 mile hole was punched into the vaunted Siegfried defensive line and the German Army fell into a full retreat. On the edge of a nervous breakdown Ludendorff declared the military situation hopeless, and asked the civilian leadership of Germany to assume control of the country and open back channel negotiations for a ceasefire. While Ludendorff argued that a civilian government was more likely to achieve a better peace agreement, mostly he was concerned with covering his own spike-helmeted head when it came time to assigning blame for the war.

Autonomy was a novelty for the politicians of Germany. Even before the war Germany’s bicameral Reichstag had not been founded as a political counterweight to the Kaiser. The parties could vote, raise issues, and debate, but not introduce major legislation or take a vote of no confidence in the choices of their monarch. Its architect Otto von Bismarck had effectively conceived of the Reichstag as the democratic frosting on this monarchical cake. This reflected the two dozen or so formal kings and other monarchs that still “ruled” within the Reich. In case they ever needed reminding of who was in charge, von Bismarck even banned the SPD or Catholic Zentrum party from time to time as “Un-German”.[4] Not that these institutional leashes were actually necessary in this case. The parties of the Reichstag had been silent for almost the entire duration of the war. Its largest party, the left leaning Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD), had staged massive antiwar protests well into July 1914, but when the Reichstag was officially asked to vote on the war, everyone except leftist SPD member Karl Liebknecht had done so. Not that the vote was much more than symbolic. As with many nations at war and all the belligerent nations at the start of World War I, Germany had muzzled itself for the duration of the conflict. Every major party agreed to the Burgfriede, a suspension of domestic political disputes in favor of presenting a united front.

Karl_Liebknecht
Karl Liebknecht. The photo doesn’t quite capture the fire and boundless energy everyone attributed to the man. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

But plastering over domestic disputes had not actually quashed bubbling antiwar sentiment. In 1916 a pro peace faction of the SDP led by Karl Liebknecht, Hugo Haase, and Rosa Luxemburg splintered off to form the Unabhängige [Independent] Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (USPD). The group organized the May Day protest strike in cities across Germany that year, which promptly earned Liebknecht a two year stint in jail after 10,000 protestors marched across Berlin. Liebknecht and Luxemburg were also founders of the Spartakusbund (Spartacus League), a formally Marxist revolutionary group dedicated to ending the war and the foundation of a socialist state. By 1918 the groups had grown bolder, organizing antiwar strikes that paralyzed the war effort in early January that year.

Faced with trouble at home and foreign armies on the march it was no wonder that Erich Ludendorff had passed the burden of leading Germany over to SPD leader Friedrich Ebert in October 1918. Now Chancellor, Ebert tried to tackle both problems as fast as he could. To the Entente he opened an official channel and asked for terms and a ceasefire. While the haggling was ongoing he turned his eye to political reform. If nothing else, resolving some of the long standing grievances of the left might have bought Ebert a little credibility and time with his domestic critics. And this was an important element to understand. Ebert was not a frothing radical personally, nor was much of the SPD. While the SPD spoke the language of Marx, Ebert personally said that he hated the “Revolution like mortal sin.”.[5] After a vigorous month he must have felt like he was getting somewhere. Aristocratic privileges like the Prussian elite’s “triple voting” status were revoked. A general amnesty had been declared for political prisoners, freeing figures like Liebknecht, Luxemburg, and chairman of the USPD Bavaria Chapter Kurt Eisner from prison. New elections for a real Reichstag were set for January. While the Entente was still on the march at least they were talking to the Chancellor. Perhaps feeling a little more balanced, at the end of October Ebert’s domestic government adjourned for the year to focus on the peace talks. Consequently when the revolution came knocking there was no organized leadership to greet it.

Kiel, Novemberrevolution, Matrosenaufmarsch
The Kiel Mutineers on the march. Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv

As offers spat back and forth and Austria Hungary formally surrendered on November 3rd, this simmering revolt boiled over. The catalyst appeared when the Imperial Navy under Admiral Reinhard Scheer began to prepare for one final sortie against the Royal Navy. Apart from the stalemated Battle of Jutland, the Kriegsmarine and Hochseeflotte had mostly sat idle in their harbor for the duration of the war. For them to sail out now was a clear sign that Scheer intended to sacrifice the fleet in a suicidal blaze of glory, and Germany’s sailors were not onboard with this notion of going down with their ships. On October 28th, 1918 the German Kriegsmarine mutinied near the City of Kiel. The mutiny was explicitly nudged along by the USPD, and the revolutionaries formed soldier’s councils under the slogan of “Peace and Bread”. By November 4th 40,000 soldiers, sailors, and civilians seized Kiel.

Years of war had hollowed out the interior of Germany, and only a stiff push was needed to knock the entire country onto its back. By November 6th the revolution reached the Western Front’s fighting units. Events moved quickly after that. All across Germany men like Eisner seized their moment with both hands,

“On November 6, 1918, [Eisner[6]] was virtually unknown, with no more than a few hundred supporters, more a literary than a political figure. He was a small man with a wild grey beard, a pince-nez, and an immense black hat. On November 7 he marched through the city of Munich with his few hundred men, occupied parliament and proclaimed the republic. As though by enchantment, the King, the princes, the generals, and Ministers scattered to all the winds.”[7]

KurtEisner.jpg
Improbable Master of Bavaria Kurt Eisner. Eisner was level headed, democratically minded, and sadly short lived. His successors in the Bavarian Soviet state were nowhere near as considerate. Photo Credit: Germaine Krull

On November 9th, the revolution reached Berlin. Friedrich Ebert now found himself in a bind familiar to many moderate lefties caught in the tides of Revolution. He had been a longtime proponent of political reform rather than dramatic social change, but the push for the latter was now knocking on his door and still open to guidance. If he acted now, he could stay ahead of events, but if he delayed or even hesitated he would be swept aside in a hurry. With that in mind Ebert and a delegation from the SPD convinced the Kaiser and Crown Prince to formally release all civil and military servants from their oaths, though they would stop short of an official abdication. Even so the Kaiser’s actions spoke for him, as he fled to Holland the same day. The Plan, insofar as it went in Ebert’s mind, would be to establish a new constitutional monarchy around Wilhelm’s grandson. But already there were other options being presented to the German people. Just out of prison, Karl Liebknecht was addressing the crowds of Berlin and joyously proclaiming the birth of Soviet Germany.

[1] Which is a very short way of summing up a very long and fascinating story. Go watch Extra Credits for a longer one. Or read Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August.

[2] Emperor’s battle. Or King’s Strike. Or any another synonym for “really big attack”.

[3] More of a post-facto name.

[4] Bismarck called the policy “Kulturkampf”. Which, quite literally, culture battles.

[5] Simkin, J. (1997). Friedrich Ebert. Spartacus Educational. Available at: http://spartacus-educational.com/GERebert.htm

[6] Bavarian USPD Chairman Kurt Eisner was a Jewish socialist and an intellectual, qualities that made him widely hated by German conservatives. Eisner was never one to mince words, and he spent much of his three short months in power leaking documents on Germany’s army and attempting to hold the moderate left accountable for its tacit support for the “small horde of mad Prussian military” men he held responsible for the war.

[7] Simkin, J. (1996). Kurt Eisner. Spartacus International. Available at: http://spartacus-educational.com/GEReisner.htm

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