November 1918: The German Revolution 
by Robert Gerwarth.
Oxford, 368 pp., £20, June 2020, 978 0 19 954647 3
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Romantic nationalists​ relish the idea of a national essence. ‘When was Serbia truly Serbian?’ Or as Gwyn Alf Williams put it, with a historian’s affectionate irony: ‘When was Wales?’ German nationalism, especially in the 19th century, answered this question in several ways. ‘When Arminius/Hermann and his Teutons cut down the Roman legions,’ or ‘When Rhenish castles echoed with knightly combat and the lays of minstrels,’ were two possible responses. But as the century drew on and the dialectics of Hegel became politicised, a different essentialism gripped imaginations. The tense shifted from past to future. Not ‘When was Germany?’ but ‘When will Germany be?’

If ‘Germany’ was a Hegelian self-realising subject, ascending from mere ‘phenomenal’ particularity to a destined universality, what sort of statehood should it attain? Clearly, a precondition for the true Germany was something like unity. The patchwork of principalities must melt into one (even in Bismarck’s time, after the overarching German Reich was proclaimed in 1871, 25 kingdoms, principalities and statelets survived, along with their rulers). Real Germany would also require modernity. But did that imply a liberal-democratic constitution based on popular sovereignty? Or an autocracy, crowned or tribal, based on racial supremacy and territorial expansion?

In 1848, the year of European revolutions, German reformers overthrew their rulers and gathered in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt to create a new order. The Frankfurt Parliament – badly split between visionaries and pragmatists – managed to agree on a constitution for a parliamentary democracy enshrining many civil rights, designed to rule a Greater Germany that would include the German-speaking parts of Austria. The Parliament was crushed by reactionary armed forces in 1849, but it left behind a noisy, reproachful ghost whose questions have haunted German politics for more than a century. The Third Reich presented Hitler as a Messiah bringing the nation at last to its mighty, unfurling destiny – Frankfurt completed at last, but without the petty detail of bourgeois democracy. In 1945, in a divided nation of ruins, hunger and mass graves, the Nazi empire and its claims on history seemed better forgotten. The postwar Bonn Republic, which lasted until reunification in 1990, brought material wealth and security, but never quite convinced those who still hoped for that ultimate, fulfilled Germany. East Germany still less so.

So what about the Weimar Republic, the parliamentary democracy created after Germany’s defeat in 1918 which lasted until Hitler murdered it in 1933? Robert Gerwarth’s book adds to the recent revisions of Weimar by historians out to rescue that particular Germany from popular and international cliché. He refuses to see it as a state doomed from the start by inflation, violence and the collapse of moral norms (all those transvestite Berlin nightclubs beloved by TV producers). On the contrary, he salutes a modernising republic crowded with creative genius, which overcame terrifying threats in its infancy to reach stability and even prosperity. Hitler’s triumph, for Gerwarth, was not the inevitable product of Weimar’s weakness, but of outside factors: above all, the Great Depression that began in 1929.

The weaknesses were ominous, all the same. Too few people had faith in the Weimar Republic or loved it for itself. Too many people despised it as a zombie state, its frontiers mutilated and its policies dictated by the victorious powers at Versailles. Gerwarth quotes the famous left-wing satirist Kurt Tucholsky:

We dreamt, under imperial restraint,
of a Republic – and now it’s this one!
One always fancies the tall slim one,
And ends up with the little fat one.
C’est la vie!

For Gerwarth, as for Tucholsky, the ‘little fat one’ was the unglamorous Weimar state. If only, he implies, Germany’s dreamers of perfection could have shelved their fantasies and been content with its ‘clear benefits’. He complains that the 1918 Revolution ‘does not feature prominently on the list of events commemorated with pride by German democrats today’, although it ‘transformed the country into one of the most progressive democracies in the world’, and won’t accept the view that the revolution was a half-hearted failure, helping to push Germany down its ‘special path’ towards ‘the abyss of the Third Reich’. His book, he promises in the preface, ‘suggests an alternative interpretation of the November Revolution – one that does more justice to the achievements of the events of 1918-19’.

But in attempting to persuade readers of his case, Gerwarth is up against a book first translated into English almost fifty years ago: Sebastian Haffner’s tremendous Failure of a Revolution. Haffner, who spent the war in Britain, returned to West Germany in the 1960s to become the giant of left-wing but non-Marxist commentary. When his book was first published in German in 1969, it bore the title Die Verratene Revolution – the betrayed revolution – an adjective much more in tune with his analysis than the ‘failure’ of the English translation. In post-1945 Germany, he was a ferocious critic of the Christian Democrat governments which in his view utterly failed to stand up to the Allied occupiers and fight for the country’s independence and reunification. But he was also unforgiving of the Social Democrats (SPD), the main opposition party until 1966 when it joined a coalition government. Haffner’s view of the SPD was almost precisely the version Gerwarth now hopes to dispel: that in the 1918-19 revolution and subsequent civil war the party leaders betrayed their mass working-class support – and that the ultimate outcome of that betrayal was the disaster of Nazi triumph in 1933. For the sake of ‘order’, Haffner argued, the SPD government called in the most viciously right-wing and ultra-nationalist elements in Germany to suppress its own followers by armed force.

The collective hero of the revolution, the German working class, never recovered … Socialist unity, for which they had fought and bled so bravely, was lost for ever in 1918. From that great betrayal dates the great schism of socialism and the inextinguishable hatred between Communists and Social Democrats – a hatred as between wolves and dogs … The same workers who in 1918 – and again in 1919 and 1920 – fought so courageously and lucklessly, found their fighting spirit broken when fifteen years later they would have needed it again – against Hitler.

Haffner denounced three false legends about what happened in 1918. The first: that it was just a ‘collapse’ and not really a revolution at all. The second: that the upheaval was a Bolshevik import from Russia, owing little to the tradition of German social democracy. And the third legend: the famous ‘stab in the back’ myth that Germany’s soldiers only lost the war because ‘socialists’ incited the workers at home to rebel. Gerwarth agrees, on the whole, about the first and the last: this was a true revolution, and it was the consequence of defeat – not the other way round. But on the question of where the radical revolutionary spirit came from, and whether it was spontaneous or fomented by a handful of unrepresentative extremists, the two part company. Gerwarth’s instincts as a historian are mildly conservative, or – more accurately – marked by German attitudes formed during the Cold War. He seems to assume that anything associated with communism or revolutionary Marxism must have been alien to Germany’s homegrown working-class tradition. For him, it is tragic that a large part of the working class was misled by extremists into pushing beyond the ‘bourgeois revolution’ of 1918 – beyond a parliamentary democracy under a government dominated by Social Democrats.

Gerwarth thinks that, given a chance, the new reformist regime would have given the workers almost everything they wanted. The 1918 revolution succeeded in its original aims: peace and democratisation. The Kaiser, after blaming it all on Jews and strikers, fled to Holland and abdicated. The military dictatorship which had in practice been running imperial Germany was deposed. The local kings and princes bolted or abdicated their thrones. Censorship was abolished. And with political reform came cultural and social revolution. Universal suffrage was introduced and included women over the age of twenty, now – after the monstrous war losses – a substantial majority of the population. Gerwarth gives full prominence to the advance of women and their rights during and after the revolution. There was easier access to birth control, and a general sexual liberation which, among other things, offered at least the hope that gay sex might be decriminalised. In the early days, there was that happy delirium, that sense of sudden and infinite possibility, which ‘real’ revolutions can uncork.

In the early summer of 1918, many Germans had thought the country might win the war after all – or at least that it might not lose. Defeat had loomed in the hungry year of 1917. But now Ludendorff’s counter-offensive in the West (already failing, though the public wasn’t aware of it), and the conquest of vast territories in the East after the Russian Revolution, suddenly restored hope. Surely, a just, even-handed peace could be negotiated, ending the war at last. The year previously, Reichstag deputies had outraged the military by voting for a ‘peace resolution’, and in January 1918 ‘war-weariness and political discontent’ had led to the biggest strike in German history. The public was at the end of its tether, morally and physically: Gerwarth quotes an estimate that the British blockade was the indirect cause of half a million deaths through malnourishment.

Illusions vanished in the autumn of 1918, as Germany’s allies – Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey – began to give up the fight. Ludendorff went to the Kaiser on 29 September and told him that he must instantly request an armistice. And that – to earn better terms – Germany should become a constitutional monarchy and let the Social Democrats into government. Addressing horrified staff officers next day, he revealed a hidden purpose behind this ‘revolution from above’: to shift the blame for defeat away from the army and onto the civilian left. ‘I have asked His Majesty to bring into government those circles whom we mostly have to thank for getting us into the present situation.’ With those words, the ‘stab in the back’ legend was born.

The SPD looked huge and formidable, but it was badly divided. A year before, a minority who had always opposed the war broke away to form the Independent Social Democrats (USPD). The pro-war policy of the majority was rapidly losing popular support and its leaders, Friedrich Ebert and Philipp Scheidemann, welcomed the idea that a ‘just peace’ might be granted by the Entente to a newly democratised Germany. Gerwarth carefully shows how the peace/war split in fact corresponded to an older and more profound ideological division in the party over revolution. On paper, the SPD still subscribed to a Marxist recipe of forceful proletarian revolution. In practice, over the thirty or so years since Marx’s death, the majority leadership had grown comfortable with the idea that socialist transformation could be brought about by parliamentary reform. It was only a year since the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia, and Western leaders seriously feared that Bolshevism was about to flood across Europe. Ebert, sturdy, bristle-haired and practical, had started life as a saddle-maker; he knew his way round the party machine, but had no time for utopias. Now, sensing that an exhausted, disaffected populace was close to explosion, he shared middle-class fears: ‘I hate it [Communist revolution] like sin!’

The pressure-valve blew on 30 October. In the naval base of Wilhelmshaven, the crew of the battleship Thüringen refused to weigh anchor. Mutiny? As Haffner pointed out, the real mutineers were not the sailors but the naval command itself. Defying the government, it planned to steam the whole High Seas Fleet into the North Sea and save its honour in a last, suicidal battle with the Royal Navy. Other warships joined the protest against this insanity. The movement flamed along the coast to the city of Kiel, igniting the rest of the fleet and then spreading to dockyard and shipyard workers. Red flags ran up masts. A Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council took over Kiel, and within days great cities all over Germany were setting up councils as industrial workers and home-front soldiers joined to make their own revolutions.

On 9 November, the uprising reached Berlin. This was to become the day of days (and, strangely, the day the Berlin Wall was breached 71 years later). In the morning, a general strike began. Columns of armed workers marched towards the city centre as a leaflet by Karl Liebknecht, a former member of the SPD who was now leader of the militant Spartakus League, urged them to reject ‘parliamentarisation and other rubbish’. The elite army unit that was supposed to ‘restore order’ sat down to discuss politics with the marchers. The appalled SPD leaders, seeing no other way out, declared support for the strike and hinted that they would back a wider revolution.

Chancellor Max von Baden, an inoffensive patrician, spent that morning on the telephone. He thought the crisis might be defused if the Kaiser would abdicate. But he couldn’t get a coherent answer from Wilhelm II, who was at army headquarters in Belgium, so at midday von Baden simply announced the abdication himself. As Germany started to celebrate, he handed over the chancellorship to Ebert and gratefully left history. All of this happened before lunch. Ebert, now head of the government, stumped across to the Reichstag canteen and sat down to his usual potato soup. By about two, a gigantic crowd had gathered outside. Without telling his boss what he was going to do, Ebert’s lieutenant Philipp Scheidemann left his soup, went out onto the balcony and off his own bat proclaimed the republic. ‘The old and rotten has collapsed; militarism is finished … Long live the German Republic!’ Ebert, furious, banged the table and yelled at him, but they had preempted Liebknecht, who about two hours later appeared on a balcony of the old Royal Palace and proclaimed the Free Socialist Republic of Germany. Capitalism had been broken, he shouted, and would be replaced by ‘a government of workers and soldiers, a new state order of the proletariat, of peace, of happiness’. In the evening, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards stormed the Reichstag and set up their own parliament, complete with a speaker and an elected executive. As the chaos mounted, Ebert agreed to the Shop Stewards’ demand for a mass meeting next day to elect a Council of Peoples’ Deputies to govern Germany. Far to the west, that same day, French generals in the forest of Compiègne rejected German pleading for milder armistice terms.

The Berlin meeting was wordy and turbulent but, to the dismay of the left, the delegates elected Ebert to head the council. The man who hated revolution like sin was now leading one, and it was swelling. The millions behind him, working men and women, trade unionists and servicemen, were overwhelmingly Social Democrat voters, not Bolshevik extremists, but they were determined to finish the social and political transformation they had begun.

Ebert began to play a double game. Perhaps he had no option. Anyway, that night he took a long phone call from General Wilhelm Groener, Ludendorff’s successor in the army high command. Groener offered Ebert the support of the army if he would suppress Bolshevism, guarantee the survival of the old officer corps, and call elections for a National Assembly, a conventional parliament, to replace the revolutionary council. Ebert gladly accepted the deal (Groener called it an ‘alliance’). And the two men agreed to keep in touch daily.

That was the tipping point. Gerwarth is determined to stay calm and impartial about it. There was a danger, he writes, that embittered and heavily armed ‘front soldiers’ might use their guns to overthrow the new republic. ‘For that very reason, and in order to tackle the extraordinarily difficult task of demobilising some six million men within a few months, Ebert had come to a pragmatic agreement.’ Haffner, writing more than fifty years earlier, did not stay calm.

Real power had its seat in the administration, in police headquarters and the ‘general command’ [of the armed forces] … if the old entrenched powers were left untouched, they would grasp the first opportunity to take their revenge on the revolution … And on this field Ebert and the SPD leadership took up positions clearly on the side of the counter-revolution. They were anxious to save what the revolution was anxious to overthrow: the old state and form of society, embodied in the bureaucracy and officer corps. They wanted to parliamentarise the old state and form part of it.

For Ebert in 1918, and for Gerwarth today, the revolutionary councils were blocking the idea of a National Assembly. Haffner flatly denied this. He believed it was not the parliament but the executive, that vengeful gang of ‘old entrenched powers’, that the councils wanted to destroy. There wasn’t at any point a threat of Bolshevik dictatorship. No German Communist Party yet existed. It would be founded in December by Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg of the Spartakus League. They were admired for their courage and eloquence, but the mass membership of the councils was reluctant to vote for Spartacist candidates. ‘In Germany in the autumn of 1918, the “Bolshevik danger” was a bogey.’

This is the crucial argument. Later, Ebert and his ruthless party colleague Gustav Noske brought in the forces of the extreme right, the army and the savage Freikorps militias, to crush the Revolution. Germany entered a dreadful year of civil war and bloodshed, and the dimensions of the conflict changed. The working-class left grew more radical and ‘Sovietic’, while the right bred a murderous extremism which eventually fuelled the Nazi cult of hyper-nationalist violence and sadism. But how should we now judge the events of November to December 1918? Was the German Revolution ‘betrayed’ by its Social Democrat leaders? Or did those leaders, by resorting to desperate means, save the valuable democratic achievements of that November?

Haffner​ celebrated the spontaneity of it all, as ordinary working men and women all over Germany began to take charge of their own lives and futures. Gerwarth, in effect, retorts that spontaneity is not the same as democracy. ‘Although the extreme left had never had any chance of gaining a majority, once the revolution had begun, it encouraged certain expectations among many workers and agitators.’ He points out that Lenin’s comrade Karl Radek was sent into Germany to ‘Bolshevise’ the masses and help to found the German Communist Party (KPD). (Gerwarth finds it necessary to tell readers that ‘his real name’ was Karol Sobelsohn, and that Rosa Luxemburg was born as ‘Rozalia Luksenburg’.) Unlike Haffner, Gerwarth gives a full and impressive record of the modest economic revival in Weimar’s first years, before the currency collapsed, and of the introduction of industrial ‘partnership’ with worker representation on company boards, the compromise which was to be such a feature of West Germany’s success after 1945. Politically, too, he sympathises with Ebert, who ‘had seen how, in autumn 1917, the minority of the Bolsheviks in Russia had chased off the parliament and plunged the country into a devastating civil war.’ (This is an odd account, given that the Russian civil war did not begin until 1918 and that the Whites, not the Bolsheviks, did the ‘plunging’.)

Berlin came to the boil again at the end of the year. The People’s Naval Division, occupying the Royal Palace in the name of the revolution, threatened to evict the Ebert government if they were not paid. The ‘forces of order’ attacked the palace, but were beaten off in the Battle of Christmas Eve. Armed workers and journalists took over the newspaper district; the seat of government, the Chancellery, was besieged. In the first days of January 1919, a second wave of revolution, higher than the first, flooded Berlin with colossal crowds, angry enough for anything. They waited for leadership. None came. A ‘revolutionary committee’ dithered, and eventually the demonstrators drifted home.

Lenin in the autumn of 1917 had a corps of professional revolutionaries ready, some with up to fourteen years of training behind them. Nothing like that existed on the German left. A few days after the crowds went home, Freikorps men seized Liebknecht and Luxemburg, battered their heads with rifle butts, shot them and dumped Luxemburg’s body in the canal. Haffner wrote that ‘today one realises with horror that this episode was historically the most potent event in the drama of the German Revolution.’ He used the word ‘Golgotha’. But he conceded that the pair and their vision of achieving uncompromising social revolution by force had contributed ‘little or nothing’ to the course of events. ‘Everything would have happened exactly as it did if they had not existed.’ Gerwarth, who gives a detailed and shocking narrative of these murders and the enormous funeral that followed, makes different points. The killings (and dozens of other Spartacists were shot by the Freikorps in the same weeks) were ‘a prominent example of the brutalisation of political life as a result of the war and its legacies’. Many other assassinations would follow; ‘murder as a means of political conflict was no longer an exception but rather an integral feature of postwar European culture.’ Gerwarth adds that the fate of Liebknecht and Luxemburg ‘would have long-term consequences for the relationship between Communists and Social Democrats’.

From now on, the battle was not between radical workers’ councils and a ‘moderate’ elected parliament. It was between revolution and increasingly determined counter-revolution. In late 1918, the Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils had ordered army reforms, including the election of officers and the abolition of rank insignia. The officer corps and the armed right wing took this as a life or death challenge. The newspaper district in Berlin was stormed; Noske decreed that anyone with a weapon or who usurped an official post should be shot. Fighting flared up across the country as working-class risings (the Soviet Republic of Bremen among the first) were crushed. In the March Uprising in Berlin, more than a thousand insurgents were killed.

Gerwarth and Haffner both describe in detail the separate and astonishing eruption in Munich. This drama began in October 1918, and it produced – was indeed produced by – the most unexpected and appealing character in the whole revolution: the bearded, middle-aged Berlin drama critic Kurt Eisner. At once a thrilling revolutionary orator and an intelligent political realist, Eisner was no Bolshevik. Unlike Ebert or Liebknecht, he saw that what the masses wanted was neither an improved status quo nor Lenin’s communism, but an elective democracy that would throw out the old ruling class and install a new one drawn from ordinary working people. Eisner also saw the need for a system of ‘checks and balances’ to moderate between the revolutionary councils and a parliament. But he was gunned down by a right-wing fanatic in February 1919 and the Bavarian revolution began to disintegrate. It ended in May, when counter-revolutionary troops under Noske’s orders stormed Munich with artillery and bombing aircraft. A ‘White Terror’ followed, worse than anything seen in Berlin.

In the same month, the Versailles peace terms were published. Hopeful fantasies about a ‘just’ settlement were shattered as Germany was stripped of its overseas empire, lost territory all round its frontiers and was loaded with a gigantic reparation debt as punishment for ‘war guilt’. Gerwarth, whose book constantly tries to set German events in their international context, urges readers to understand Versailles as a European metamorphosis – from empires to national self-determination – rather than as just a German grievance. Germans, all the same, asked bitterly why self-determination was denied to their own nation. Fury at the cuts in armed forces demanded by Versailles, and reluctantly accepted by the government, helped to fire the Kapp Putsch in March 1920, when a Freikorps brigade marched on Berlin and sent the cabinet flying to Dresden and then Stuttgart. But the putschists controlled Germany for only a day before a general strike paralysed the whole country. Ebert, now president of the republic, sent out a panicky strike call which reverted to the SPD’s old class-war language: ‘Proletarians, unite! Down with the counter-revolution!’

Four days later, the rebels gave up and were allowed to march away unpunished. But the strike continued, and turned into the last and most tragic uprising of the whole revolutionary period, as the military attacked pickets and armed workers once again set up councils to govern themselves. In the Ruhr, an improvised Red Army took over the whole industrial basin and demanded nationalisation of the coal mines. Now the SPD leadership, back in Berlin but terrified by this fresh proletarian challenge, ordered the army and the Freikorps into battle against the workers whose support had just saved their skins. As Haffner grimly puts it, they ‘found their way back into their familiar role of fig-leaf for the counter-revolution’. Troops under the orders of a mainly Social Democrat government blasted and massacred their way across the Ruhr, slaughtering not only armed workers but civilians – even hospital nurses begging for their lives.

That was the final peak of revolution. Then, jerkily, matters began to stabilise. President Ebert passed fierce emergency decrees, criminalising verbal or written attacks on the republic. The apocalyptic hyper-inflation of 1923 was overcome, as Germany negotiated its way to milder reparations terms. Left and right launched futile coup attempts, like Adolf Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in November 1923, but the Weimar Republic survived and, until the Depression in 1929, secured reasonable security and living standards for most of its citizens.

Gerwarth argues that it is unfair – hindsight history – to attribute the catastrophe of Hitlerism to the weaknesses of Weimar. His book is instructive about the social achievements of Weimar – the changes in the position of women especially – and enlightening about the European and global context in which the new republic overcame the horrors of its infancy. But the Nazi triumph in 1933 did not come from nowhere, even if Gerwarth avoids searching the ruins of Weimar for its causes. Haffner is in no doubt about the link. He was writing his book in 1968, at the height of the German student uprisings, for which he had strong but critical sympathy. I was a reporter at the time and I can still hear the grey torrent of demonstrators thundering their chant: ‘Wer hat uns verraten? Sozial-Demokraten!/Wer hatte Recht? Karl Liebknecht!’ (‘Who betrayed us? Social Democrats! Who was in the right? Karl Liebknecht!’)

That was absurdity in 1968. Willy Brandt – nobody’s class traitor – was leading the SPD. But in 1918 and 1919? The revolutionaries wanted not only peace but a new kind of state in which the old ruling elites – the officer corps, the bureaucrats, the titled landowners and the big capitalists – would be replaced by a grassroots people’s democracy. But Ebert wanted to stop the revolutionary train at its first station. He settled for a parliamentary democracy, perhaps even preserving a Hohenzollern regency, in which he and his party could lead a reforming government. He had no wish to turn the world upside down. To keep it the right way up, to suppress Bolshevism and ‘chaos’, he was prepared to invoke the bayonets of the SPD’s traditional arch-enemy, militarist reaction, against his own supporters.

Ebert and his colleagues in the government earned no gratitude from the right-wingers and nationalists. For them, they were still traitors – the ‘November criminals’. But what would the history of Germany have been if the SPD leaders had let the revolution take its course? Perhaps a radical but generous and democratic socialism, Marxist but not Leninist or Stalinist in its treatment of dissent. Perhaps – but would such a socialist state have been able to resist the vengeance of those who had lost power?

For Haffner, the ‘betrayal’ led to the calamitous split between communists and Social Democrats which fractured resistance to the Nazis. Liebknecht and Luxemburg became the founding martyrs of the KPD, which grew to number almost half a million members. Many of them believed firmly that the SPD had ‘betrayed’ their revolution in 1918. In the late 1920s the KPD surrendered to a blind Stalinism which rejected (until it was too late) a common front against Hitlerism with the ‘Social Fascists’ – Moscow’s prescribed description of the SPD.

‘To this day Germany is crippled by the betrayal of 1918,’ Haffner ended his book. Those words can no longer stand, even if they do describe the divided, uncertain nation of 1968. While Angela Merkel’s Germany endures many epithets, ‘crippled’ isn’t one of them. But that a brave and brilliant revolution of expectations a hundred years ago did not fail but was betrayed – and by the leaders of the oldest and mightiest working-class movement in Europe – that remains true and terrible.

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