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The Revolutions of Russia (1917) and Germany (1918)

The First World War opened a new historical period in Europe: that of communist and social democratic revolutions. The revolutionary response to the war had as its main focus Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918.
Elliot Fernández

Elliot Fernández

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).

20/10/2019 | Last update:

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The end of the First World War opened a new historical period in Europe: the two revolutions in Russia in 1917 (February and October) and then in Germany in 1918 (November). The main focus of the revolutionary reaction to the war was precisely Russia and Germany. But it was also the years of the rise of fascism into power, first in Italy since 1922 and in Germany in 1933; the crisis of bourgeois democracy; the progress of technology; and the contrast between the great development of capitalism during the 1920s and one of the greatest economic crises in recent world history in 1929, the Great Depression.

The February and October Revolutions in Russia (1917)

The Russian Revolution was one of the direct consequences of the involvement of the Russian Empire in World War I, but it was not the only one. The Revolution took place in two stages: the first with the fall of the autocratic government of Tsar Nicholas II during the February Revolution of 1917 (March 8 – 16 according to the Gregorian calendar); the second one with the October Revolution (November according to the current Gregorian calendar) of the same year, whereby power passed into the hands of the Soviets under the leadership of Lenin, the main leader of the Bolshevik Party.

The causes of the February Revolution

Economic, political and social context of Tsarist Russia

There are several reasons why Russia forced the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the representative of Europe’s most autocratic monarchy. Russia was governed by an absolutist monarchy, with schemes more proper of Ancient Regime in Europe. Until now, there had been no real process of economic modernization that would have allowed its inhabitants to escape from the most absolute poverty.

The general situation of Russia until 1917 was as follows:

  • A clash between the needs of a society in transition and the persistence of political and social systems that do not favour the population. The tsarist monarchy wanted to establish industrial capitalism in Russia without first making political and social reforms;
  • The beginning of industrial development clashed with the old structures of the political and social order;
  • The expansion of the internal market was a problem because the social structures still maintained the submission of the peasantry under agrarian structures of medieval origin;
  • Without a strong internal market, there were many problems in maintaining an external market (in the colonies).

Russian society demanded measures of political and economic reform, but these pretensions clashed with the intentions of the autocratic tsarist regime, which did not want to cede any form of power. Power was in the hands of the tsar and the territories were controlled by the nobility, which had no interest in promoting agrarian reform. Autocracy is an obstacle to economic development.

The tsarist regime identified itself with the interests of the nobility, so the incipient bourgeois class could not impose on the state the economic policy it was interested in. The only way out for the bourgeoisie was the conquest of foreign markets, blocked towards the European world and the Middle East. Russia’s foreign expansion went to Asia, but it did not work because of Japan’s competition. In 1904 there was a clash between Japan and Russia (Russo-Japanese War).

Russia’s unexpected defeat to Japan in 1905 exposed the Russian state, provoking an internal crisis in which bourgeois and proletarian interests united. Russia’s war and failure led to an anti-government, spontaneous revolt, widespread throughout the Russian Empire. Events have gone down in history as the 1905 Revolution. Apparently the revolution had neither direction nor control, nor any recognized objective. But it is generally regarded as the starting point for the changes in Russia that culminated in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the end of Tsarism.

Diumenge sagnant to Iaroslavl (AI Malygin, 1929).  Revolutions of Russia and Germany
Revolution of 1905. Bloody Sunday in Yaroslavl (A. I. Malygin, 1929).

The Tsarist regime tried, after the 1905 Revolution, to approve some concessions by projecting a political and social reform with two main measures:

  • The creation of a consultative Assembly (the First State Duma) where the bourgeoisie could be represented;
  • The promulgation of an electoral law and the first Constitution of Russia in 1906, by which the tsar shared his absolute power with parliament, even though executive power would remain in the hands of the tsar.

They were very limited political reforms, driven by Prince Pyotr Stolypin, who was appointed Prime Minister by the first Duma. Stolypin tried to promote a liberal agrarian reform, by which he suppressed the Obshchina (the communities of peasants who shared communal ownership of land) and liberalized the purchase and sale of agrarian property. Stolypin’s intention was to create a group of prosperous peasants (kulaks) to provide social support to the government, as to curb the struggle for land of the bulk of peasants. This reform allowed an agrarian modernization that led many areas of the country from self-consumption to a commercial agriculture that could supply even the cities.

With the suppression of the Obshchina, an attempt was made to boost the land market through the privatization of communal lands. The “modernization of the countryside” was defended, following the English model, introducing capitalism into the agrarian world as to consolidate private property. The agrarian reform had to be imposed through the repression against the dissident peasants who reject it, and that ended with a multitude of executions.

In 1911 Stolypin was assassinated by Dimitri Bogrov, a radicalized revolutionary. Thus, the tsar had the excuse to interrupt the reform process and marginalize the Duma. When World War I began, the situation in Russia was worse than in 1905. Russia joined the First World War in a situation of social crisis.

The Russian Empire during the First World War

The First World War (1914-1918) generated enormous economic and social costs for all the countries that participated in it, but especially for Russia. The political response of most of the countries that participated in the war was the creation of national unity governments, in which all political parties participated. But that did not happen in Russia. Countries that built national unity governments associated war with collective interests. Russia joined the war for strategic interests: it needed free access to the Mediterranean blocked by the Ottoman Empire. But there was no collective motivation for war.

The first world war caused great inflation in the Russian Empire, chaos in the supply of products in the cities and mobilizations of peasants who were very dissatisfied with the previous reforms. In 1916 the situation was already quite convulsive. There were constant local conflicts, the tsar was not supported by the people and his management of the war was questioned. The February Revolution of 1917 did not suddenly break out, but came because there were many strikes in the cities and peasant riots all over the country. Also, evident to all, was the great military incapacity of the Russian High Command, which was unable to guarantee the food supply of the cities because national agricultural production was being diverted to feed the army on the front.

The February Revolution of 1917

On February 18th (according to the Julian calendar), Petrograd’s largest factory, the Putilov factory, announced a strike; the police fired on the strikers and some stores closed, leading to insurrections in other production centres. On February 23rd, a series of rallies and demonstrations were held on the occasion of International Women’s Day, which gradually acquired a strong political and economic tone. Again the response of the state was repression: a battalion of soldiers was sent to the city to appease the uprising, but many of them not only preferred to defect but rebelled against their commanders. These events forced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate on March 2 (JU) (March 15, from the Gregorian calendar).

Revolutionize in an imatge of February 1917
Revolutionaries in a picture dated February 1917

With the tsar’s abdication, the regime sank. In some parts of the country the authorities could maintain autocratic power, while in other places the Soviets began to be formed, as was the case of the Petrograd Soviet, which played an important role during the revolutionary days and acted as a counterweight to the provisional government established after the fall of the tsar.

The Provisional Government

On March 2nd the first provisional government was formed to fill the power vacuum left by the abdication of the tsar. It was headed by Prince Gueorgui Yevguénievich Lvov and comprised members of the Russian Constitutional Democratic Party (KD), including Pavel Milyukov and Alexander Kerensky. The former was a nobleman, the latter a bourgeois and the latter a politician of the Social-Revolutionary Party (SR).

The provisional government of St. Petersburg was recognized by the army and the main local governments, but not by all political forces. Its main objective was to govern and encourage the construction of a new regime. And that is why elections were called for a National Constituent Assembly.

The interim government had to solve the problem of scarcity and the problem of war. They did not remove Russia from the war because they could not break the Entente pact with France and England.

In May, Milyukov sent a telegram in which he assured that Russia would remain active on the eastern front, which led to the fall of the provisional government, which had to resign. This was followed by the formation of a Second Provisional Government headed by Alexander Kerensky (21 July – 8 November) and with the participation of all political groups except the Bolsheviks.

The October Revolution of 1917

Meanwhile, Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), who was exiled in Switzerland, agreed with the Kaiser of Germany to withdraw Russia from the war in exchange for allowing it to pass through Germany so that it could reach Russia. The train left Geneva on April 9th. On April 15th it arrived in Petrograd.

Upon his arrival, he uttered some well-known words:

Lenin up to Saint Petersburg
Lenin arrives in Petrograd on April 15th, 1917

“The people need peace; the people need bread; the people need land. And they give you war, hunger, no bread—leave the landlords still on the land… We must fight for the social revolution, fight to the end, till the complete victory of the proletariat. Long live the world-wide social revolution!”

In April 1917 Lenin developed and publicly exposed his idea that a new revolution was needed to replace the provisional government and to make a government of the proletarians and workers (Soviets). Later they would be known as “The April Theses.”

The provisional government included the Bolshevik opposition (which defended the thesis of “bread, peace and land” for the workers) and a section of the army that conspired against the government. When the first provisional government fell, the first thing that the new Prime Minister Kerensky did, it, was to arrest the Bolshevik leaders. Lenin managed to flee to Finland, but other Bolsheviks, including Trotsky and Lunacharski, were arrested and imprisoned on July 22nd (August 4th on our calendar).

In August, General Lavr Kornilov went to St. Petersburg and attempted an aborted coup. This discredited Kerensky. To resist a possible attack by Kornilov’s forces, Kerensky considered it necessary to resort to the military apparatus of the Bolsheviks. In addition, Kerensky ordered that 40,000 rifles be distributed to Petrograd workers, many of which ended up in the hands of the Bolsheviks. On September 4th, Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders were released. Trotsky became the leader of Petrograd’s Soviet Council. Lenin was already thinking about the assault on power and will impose his criteria within the party.

At ten o’clock in the morning of October 25th (November 7th in the Gregorian calendar), the Military Revolutionary Committee published the proclamation, written by Lenin, of the dissolution of the Provisional Government and the transmission of power to the Soviet of Petrograd. Early in the afternoon, Trotsky convened an extraordinary session of the Petrograd Soviet to prepare for the Congress of the Soviets. The meeting was controlled by the Bolsheviks and by the left-wing faction of the social-revolutionaries.

The Military Revolutionary Committee sent armed workers and soldiers to capture key Petrograd buildings. The Winter Palace was attacked at 9.40 a.m. when Kerensky left Petrograd. Bolsheviks had taken the power.

On October 26th (November 8th), the Congress of the Soviets approved the Decree on Peace, the Decree on Land and the formation of a new government called the Council of People’s Commissars under the presidency of Lenin, which was to exercise its functions until the meeting of the Constituent Assembly.

The elections were held on November 25th, 1917, but were not won by the Bolsheviks, but by the revolutionary socialists (moderate wing), which was Lenin’s political slap in the face. The Constituent Assembly was dominated by the revolutionary socialists.

On January 5th the Constituent Assembly met, presided over by Victor Chernov, but it was dissolved by the Red Army. The process towards dictatorship began. Chernov had to flee to the Caucasus and there formed a Government of the Constituent Assembly, rival to the Bolshevik government. Russia’s withdrawal from the First World War, with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk signed on 3 March 1918, affirmed the independence of Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Ukraine.

Lenin es dirigeix a l'Exèrcit Roig al 1920, sota la presència de Trotsky
Lenin addresses the Red Army in 1920, in the presence of Trotsky.

The Bolshevik government promoted the Agrarian Reform, expropriated the lands of the landowners into public estates to distribute them among the landless peasants and gave control of the factories to the workers.

The November Revolution of 1918 in Germany

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:

  • Trying to fit Germany into the peace package offered to them by President Wilson (forcing them to carry out a political reform of the Reich based on increasing the power of parliament, turning the Empire into a parliamentary monarchy);
  • And submit military power to civilian power (deactivating the idea of Prussian militarism).

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:

  • On November 6th the revolution takes place in Hamburg and Bremen;
  • On November 7th it arrives in Munich;
  • November 8th in Cologne and Frankfurt;
  • On November 9th the insurgency arrives in Berlin. Popular uprising, led by the workers. There will also be a working class that will form the Democratic Party.

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?

  • The recognition of the trade union bosses as representatives of the workers;
  • It established the 8-hour day;
  • Generalized demand: the patronal promised to study union participation in the control of the factories;
  • The unions asked to pacify the factories.

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:

  • The dissolution of the army and substitution by a popular militia. Destruction of Prussian militarism;
  • The impulse of the socialization of the industries by the workers’ control of the big industries;
  • The constitution of the democratic Republic.

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.

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