Elliot Fernandez

The November Revolution of 1918 in Germany

The November Revolution of 1918 in Germany took place in the final moments of the First World War, between the months of November 1918 and March 1919.
Elliot Fernandez
Elliot Fernandez
He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).
Post on 2022-09-14 | Updated on 2022-10-04

The November Revolution of 1918 in Germany took place in the last moments of the First World War, between the months of November 1918 and March 1919. As the most immediate consequence, it is necessary to point out the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the democratic republic.

Lenin's original idea was to spread the revolution throughout Europe. The Russian Revolution was to be the first of a spiral of revolutions by all industrially advanced countries. So when the first news of the outbreak of revolution in Germany came, Lenin and the other party members received it very positively.

However, the German Revolution of 1918 had very different characteristics from the Russian Revolution, and did not have the same result. The immediate cause of the German Revolution was the defeat of the country in the First World War. Unlike Russia, the German Empire was not a failed state. Germany has been unified relatively recently, has a consolidated process of industrialization in the western part of the country, and capitalism is not in crisis. Nor was there a crisis of popular consensus.

Germany during World War I: until the last moment it believed in victory

With the war, a government of National Unity had been formed. A minority but important sector of the Social Democratic Party, the SPD, shown itself against the war and formed its party, the USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party). At the end of 1917 there was a certain movement of strikes, which in 1918 was diluted.

In early 1918, after the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, there was some hope of German victory in the war. In the spring of 1918 there were the last offensives on the western front, and it seemed that the central powers would win the war.

The hope of a possible German victory in the war resurfaced in German patriotic sentiment, but in the summer of 1918 it became clear that the war would not be won. From believing that they would win the war, they went on to lose it. At that time, the German government decided to avoid defeat by reaching an agreement with the allied powers.

Kaiser Wilhelm II entrusted the formation of a new government to Prince Maximilian of Bade (October 3rd, 1918), a politician with a conservative liberal tendency. A Social Democrat, Philipp Scheidemann, also joined his cabinet for the first time. The government consisted of representatives of the SPD, the liberal parties and the conservative centre parties.

This government had to do two things:

However, the Chancellor de Bade's reform proposal was unsuccessful, due to the opposition of the army. Kaiser William II himself, forced by political pressure to hand over power to Bade, was not sympathetic to his reform.

November Revolution breaks out

With such a pre-revolutionary situation, the Kaiser Wilhelm II left Berlin to go to the city of Spa (headquarters of the General Staff). There the Navy, which was anchored in Kiel, was ordered to remain in the war. This order at the end of October triggered the insurgency.

Upon receiving the order of the Navy, some of Kiel's non-commissioned officers decided to rise and constitute a Council of Sailors (from October 28th to November 4th), which was supported by Kiel's socialist movements. The first step of the Revolution took place in Kiel, but the insurgency spread throughout the country, with no one calling for revolution, totally spontaneously. The trade unions and the two socialist parties supported the insurrectionary movements. It was a concomitant process:

As the revolution arrives in Berlin on November 9th, the Kaiser decides to abdicate and leave the country.

The Triomfà Revolution to Berlin on November 9, 1918
The Revolution triumphed in Berlin on November 9th, 1918

Chancellor Maximilian von Baden considered that he had lost his legitimacy and offered Friedrich Ebert, one of the leaders of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the possibility of forming a provisional government. The offer was initially accepted. Ebert tried to form a continuity provisional government made up of the majority parties: social democrat, independent, democrat, centre party. It wanted to proclaim a democratic republic and achieve the armistice. But Ebert was overwhelmed by the street situation.

Revolutionary Germany: the Council of People's Deputies

Karl Liebknecht (one of the leaders of the Spartacus League which, from 8 December 1918, would become the Communist Party of Germany, the KPD) moved immediately to Berlin on 9 November as soon as he was released from prison. The declaration of the Socialist Republic was being considered, but Phillipp Scheidemann (Berlin leader of the Social Democratic Party), upon learning of the news of the triumph of the revolution, quickly decided to go out onto the balcony of the Reichstag building and from there proclaimed the Republic on his own, against Ebert's express will.

Philipp Scheidemann
Philipp Scheidemann proclaims the Republic on November 9th, 1918. Photo: dpa

Friedrich Ebert abandoned the idea of proclaiming a provisional government and formed a Council of People's Deputies, which appeared to have emerged from the Revolution and was very similar to the Councils of the People's Commissioners of Russia. Ebert wanted to emphasize that his council was not imposed by the socialist party, but by the rank and file, the people.

Consell de Comissaris del Poble
Council of People's Deputies, emerged from the German Revolution

The Council consisted of 6 members: 3 socialists, 3 independents. This was the government of the revolution.

1st Measure

The army had to stick to the new revolutionary situation. The General Staff was led by Marshal Wilhelm Groener, the new First Commander General. Groener obtained the support of the army and asked in return for Ebert's promise to restore the ranks of the army. Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff were removed from power. This meant the liquidation of the Empire.

2nd Measure

The armistice was obtained and finally signed on March 11th, 1919. This was a big difference with Russia, as the SPD was with the people, had no problems with the state, and had no problems with the war because the war was over.

3rd Measure

The new regime, which controlled the street, could not be destabilized by social discontent (occupation of factories by workers). To this end, Friedrich Ebert promoted a great pact between the unions and the patronal on November 15th, 1918, an agreement that was concluded in three days. What did it consist of?

In Germany, there was no process of social instability from the point of view of labour. As of November 15th, the unions had a priority interest in stabilizing the political situation. The message they gave was that it was necessary to consolidate the political situation so that these social advances could be consolidated.

The revolutionary government had a problem. The SPD and the USPD did not have the same opinions on the options of the revolutionary process. When the Empire fell, the principalities and kingdoms that formed Germany became Landers. On November 25th, Ebert convened the Councils of the Landers and won their recognition.

What did the majority social democratic party, the SPD, propose?

The SPD made an analysis of the traditional situation of a social Democratic Party: “Germany was in a phase of capitalist development. Germany was not yet ready to give way to socialism. Capitalism had to make the transition to socialism. What Germany had to do was move from the Empire to a Democratic Republic to advance towards socialism.”

In addition, the SPD rejected the Russian revolutionary process, which, in its opinion, had led to a partisan dictatorship.

The Council of People's Deputies should call for elections to the Constituent Assembly as soon as possible. Germany already had an electoral register. The state apparatus has to function again and it is up to Parliament to decide which republic should exist. To restore the state apparatus, the Council of People's Deputies had to reach an agreement with the group of civil servants where the socialist presence was minimal. Ebert respected the state apparatus inherited from the Empire, minimized the army, and agreed with the bourgeois parties to accept the new political situation to avoid blocking the state apparatus.

The SPD accepted this proposal.

Proposal of the Independent Social Democrats (USPD)

There was not one proposal, but three. Should we go towards a democratic republic or towards a socialist republic?

Eduard Bernstein (representative of the revisionist sector) and Karl Kautsky (contrary to the Russian revolutionary process) were representatives of the right wing of the party. They proposed to support Ebert's plan, but with a nuance: to take advantage of the provisional period to decree, from the Council of People's Deputies, some measures of socialist orientation in the field of labour relations to guarantee the electoral triumph.

Hugo Haase opted for the Workers' Republic of Councils (Soviet) constituted through a constitutional process of the existing Councils. National Conference of Congresses and declaration of the Republic.

Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht argued that the Councils should be the main protagonists. According to the two political leaders, it was not necessary to wait for the councils to decide to proclaim the republic, but to practice “revolutionary exercises” as to keep the revolution on the street. Rosa Luxemburg and Liebknecht formed the Communist Party in December 1918.

The "betrayed" revolution. The thesis of the SPD of the Democratic Republic triumphs

In December 1918 the theses of the SPD were imposed. Between the 16th and 20th of December 1918, the First National Congress of Councils was convened in Berlin. Almost 500 delegates took part, 2/3 of whom were members of the SPD. The group of followers of the USPD did not reach one hundred. 10 delegates were followers of Rosa Luxemburg.

The Congress of Councils supported the Constituent Assembly. As to build bridges between the majority and the independents, they added that a programme of social reforms had to be initiated before the elections:

Ebert the following month called elections which were held on January 19, 1919. In January there were incidents in Berlin between supporters of the SPD and the Spartacus League.

Combats al carrer between SPD supporters and spartaquistes to the 1919 gene.
Street fighting between SPD supporters and Spartacists in January 1919

The conflict which broke out between the SPD and the USPD ended with the dismissal of the police chief, a militant of the USPD, who provoked the protest of the independents, taking the decision to resign from the Council of People's Deputies. Ebert replaced them with 3 other representatives of his party.

From being a divided Council, they became the new majoritarian Council of the SPD: the 2nd Council of People's Deputies. This Council was stronger than the Russian one. Ebert brought representatives from the right wing of the SPD, Gustav Noske, who was extremely hostile to the USPD.

The decision to call elections was accepted by all but the Communist Party, which rejected the convocation and appealed for abstention to block the elections by the announcement of a general strike on January 6th, to support the Republic of Councils, with a minimum of followers.

On January 15th, 1919 Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (leaders of the Communist Party) were assassinated.

More than 80% of the population participated in the January 19th elections, resulting in the absolute defeat of the Communist Party. The SPD won 38% of the votes and the USDP 7.5%. Ebert's success. But the SPD won without a majority.

January 1919 elections
Results in MPs for political parties at the National Assembly. Source: Wikipedia.org

The SPD could continue to lead the constituent process, but did not have the majority. It was the largest party, but it was forced to make a pact with the Centre Party (Zentrum) and the German Democratic Party (DDP), from which the Scheidemann government would emerge (February – June 1919).

The New Weimar Republic

To avoid further revolutionary unrest in Berlin, the Constituent Assembly met on February 6th, in Weimar. There, on February 11th they elected Ebert as interim President of the Reich and, on February 13th, they elected Philipp Scheidemann as Prime Minister of the newly formed coalition. On August 21st Ebert was finally invested constitutionally as the President of the Reich.

Weimar's new Constitution, which turned the German Reich into a democratic republic, was approved on August 14th, 1919 by the votes of the SPD, Zentrum and DDP. It was within the liberal and democratic tradition of the 19th century and took textually, like the current German constitution, many passages from the Paulskirche Constitution of 1849.

However, because of the distribution of majorities in the national parliament, the central demands of the revolutionaries in November were not met: the socialization of the iron and coal industry and the democratization of the official bodies (Offizierkorps), the expropriation of the big banks, heavy industry and the large land properties of the nobles, the positions and pensions of the imperial officials and soldiers were explicitly protected.

On the one hand, the Weimar Constitution contained more possibilities of direct democracy than the RFA Constitution “Grundgesetz” (1949), for example with the referendum petition (Volksbegehren) and the referendum (Volksentscheid). On the other hand, the article 28 of emergency powers gave the Reich president broad powers to govern, even against the Reichstag majority and, if necessary, the use of the army in the interior. This article proved a decisive means for Adolf Hitler to destroy democracy in 1932 – 1933.

Conclusion of the German Revolution

The outcome was the constitution of a democratic republic, the Weimar Republic, made up of parties that had never been republicans or democrats, but had historically made pacts with the socialists (the Catholics) during Bismarck's regime. Democracy without Republicans.