German Revolution

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German Revolution

Germany 1918-1919


At the end of a lost world war, Germany's divided labor movement attained political power. The reluctant revolutionaries, however, achieved limited gains for working people because of each leading group's different priorities, methods, and relations to bourgeois parties. The revolution attained a republican form of state, parliamentary democracy, women's suffrage, an eight-hour day workday, and some social reforms. Differences over the pace of change, conflicts on new forms versus representation such as workers' councils, and finally engagement in civil war divided labor even more than had the international conflict. The revolution attained few institutional alterations, and most of the social gains were lost within five years.


  • 1907: Great Britain, France, and Russia form the Triple Entente, which will form the core of the Allies in World War I—even as the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria, and Italy, signed in 1882, will constitute the basis for the Central Powers. (Italy, however, will opt to side with the Allies.)
  • 1914: On 28 June in the town of Sarajevo, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinates Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie. In the weeks that follow, Austria declares war on Serbia, and Germany on Russia and France, while Great Britain responds by declaring war on Germany. By the beginning of August, the lines are drawn, with the Allies (Great Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia, Montenegro, and Japan) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey).
  • 1917: In Russia, a revolution in March (or February according to the old Russian calendar) forces the abdication of Czar Nicholas II. By July, Alexander Kerensky has formed a democratic socialist government, and continues to fight the Germans, even as starvation and unrest sweep the nation. On 7 November (25 October old style) the Bolsheviks under V. I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky seize power. By 15 December they have removed Russia from the war by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany.
  • 1918: The Bolsheviks execute Czar Nicholas II and his family. Soon civil war breaks out between the communists and their allies, known as the Reds, and their enemies, a collection of anticommunists ranging from democrats to czarists, who are known collectively as the Whites. In March troops from the United States, Great Britain, and France intervene on the White side.
  • 1918: The Second Battle of the Marne in July and August is the last major conflict on the Western Front. In November, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicates, bringing an end to the war.
  • 1918: Influenza, carried to the furthest corners by returning soldiers, spreads throughout the globe. Over the next two years, it will kill nearly 20 million people—more than the war itself.
  • 1919: With the formation of the Third International (Comintern), the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.
  • 1919: Treaty of Versailles is signed by the Allies and Germany, but rejected by the U.S. Senate. This is due in part to rancor between President Woodrow Wilson and Republican Senate leaders, and in part to concerns over Wilson's plan to commit the United States to the newly established League of Nations and other international duties. Not until 1921 will Congress formally end U.S. participation in the war, but it will never agree to join the League.
  • 1919: In Italy a former socialist of the left named Benito Mussolini introduces the world to a new socialism of the right, embodied in an organization known as the "Union for Struggle," or Fasci di Combattimento. Composed primarily of young war veterans discontented with Italy's paltry share of the spoils from the recent world war (if not with their country's lackluster military performance in the conflict), the fascists are known for their black shirts and their penchant for violence.
  • 1921: As the Allied Reparations Commission calls for payments of 132 billion gold marks, inflation in Germany begins to climb.
  • 1923: Conditions in Germany worsen as inflation skyrockets and France, attempting to collect on coal deliveries promised at Versailles, marches into the Ruhr basin. In November an obscure political group known as the National Socialist German Workers' Party attempts to stage a coup, or putsch, in a Munich beer hall. The revolt fails, and in 1924 the party's leader, Adolf Hitler, will receive a prison sentence of five years. He will only serve nine months, however, and the incident will serve to attract attention for him and his party, known as the Nazis.
  • 1927: Stalin arranges to have Trotsky expelled from the Communist Party.

Event and Its Context

The German labor movement—the world's largest before World War I with one million members in the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and two and a half million trade union members—split into three major factions by 1918. The largest, the so-called majority SPD, supported the war effort while agitating for political and social reforms.

Led by Friedrich Ebert and Philipp Scheidemann, the main labor party simultaneously agitated for peace and for responsible parliamentary government while opposing the social policies of the imperial regime. The SPD supported the regime's supposedly defensive war effort by repeatedly voting for war credits. In 1917 the SPD participated in an informal opposition alliance with liberals and Catholics that advocated parliamentary government and moderate war aims. In October 1918 the SPD joined in a coalition government that tried to negotiate peace and institute political reforms such as ending the three-class suffrage and making the monarch and the military directly responsible to parliament.

The Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), which split from the SPD to set up its own caucus in 1916 and then created a separate party in 1917, resolutely opposed the war. Led by Hugo Haase, some Independents fostered revolution and others demanded change through parliamentary means. The USPD obtained a large enough following to challenge the SPD for the leadership of labor by 1918.

The Spartacists, a radical faction of the Independents led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, sought direct mass action, but mostly had to agitate secretly against the war and against the tactics of the SPD from jail. This group could claim only a tiny following until the Russian Revolution of 1917 gave their approach some plausibility.

The trade union federation under reformer Carl Legien supported the war effort; however, by 1918 many metalworkers and some politicized women and youth moved to the militant stance of the Independents and Spartacists. The union leaders opposed strikes during wartime, but in January 1918 the munitions workers struck to oppose the continued war and inflation.

New, spontaneous antiwar organizations emerged in late October and early November 1918 when the war had obviously been lost. These councils of workers and soldiers, created partly in imitation of the soviets of the Russian Revolution, drastically altered the political landscape. The first councils prevented a desperate naval sortie, took power in northern coastal cities, and under the local leader of the Independents, Kurt Eisner, initiated the actual revolution of 1918-1919 by overthrowing the Wittelsbach dynasty in Bavaria. A few days later, on 9 November 1918, the Hohenzollern monarchy of Wilhelm II was deposed in Berlin.

The SPD and the USPD formed provisional coalition governments throughout Germany and gained the support of the workers' and soldiers' councils. The dual authority system of political parties and councils did not function well. SPD and union members attained control of most councils and labor's previous political and union leaders maneuvered them out of power. Labor's political leaders, especially the coheads of the Berlin government, Ebert and Haase, looked to parliamentary compromise rather than radical social change in a moment of opportunity. Thus the main institutional bulwarks of the old society (the Prussian officers' corps, the conservative civil service, and the huge monopoly industries) were hardly affected by the revolution. The trade union leaders allied with big business (the so-called Stinnes-Legien agreement of November 1918 for mutual recognition), which further undercut the possibility of social change. Ebert and Haase worked with the old military to fulfill the stringent terms of the Allied armistice. Ebert secretly allied himself with General Wilhelm Groener to attain a power base and thus hindered a transformation of the military. Scheidemann and Haase recruited Count von Brockdorff-Rantzau from the aristocratic diplomatic corps to prepare for negotiations with the Allies on the assumption that their task included maintaining Germany as a great power state. National concerns triumphed over the social interests of labor.

Early in the revolution, moderation and compromises on behalf of national values set the parameters for minimal institutional alteration. Instead, national elections to a constituent assembly in mid-January 1919 sought and gained legitimization. The SPD obtained 37 percent of the vote and the Independents took 14 percent, but the SPD allied with the liberals and Catholics as they had since 1917. During the crucial months of November and December 1918, the Independents shifted indecisively between radicalism and moderation, between advocating that power be invested in the councils and accepting parliamentary compromise. When SPD had to decide just before Christmas 1918 whether the use of military force was justified in putting down a revolt of marines, the Independent leaders resigned from the main coalition government in Berlin, though they tried to use regional bases in Bremen, Braunschweig, and Bavaria to foster council-based democratization and socialization.

In Berlin, then in other cities, the clashes between the moderate, reformist SPD and the more radical factions among the Independents and Spartacists turned to civil war after the Independents left the coalition government. In early January 1919 the Spartacists held a congress and formed themselves into the Communist Party of Germany. One faction, which included Liebknecht, attempted an uprising against the Ebert government. The SPD unleashed the old military and brutal volunteer troops (Freikorps) against the action. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were among those murdered during this so-called Spartacist uprising.

The week-long street fighting in Berlin and the move of the national government to Weimar left many mental scars among the middle class, who organized "self-defense" organizations and paramilitary groups. The Weimar national assembly, however, created a modern democratic constitution for Germany with some social rights such as collective bargaining and unemployment support. Parts of the labor movement continued to seek a greater social transformation via strikes and regional governments based on councils. The Ebert and Scheidemannled coalition of SPD, liberals, and Catholics employed the military and repressed in turn each council or Independent challenge: Bremen in February, Braunschweig in March, Bavaria in May. From February to May the Bavarian scene had become ever more chaotic with the assassination of Eisner, then the formation of a council, and finally the formation of an anarchist regime. The moderate forces of social democracy and trade unionism had restored law and order against the councils and radical elements of labor; by 1920, however, putsches from parts of the old elite on the right and the new Communist Party on the far left were challenging the moderates.

In the process of demobilizing the millions in the German army and navy under Allied armistice and then Versailles Treaty terms, working women were shunted aside and men were given preference for jobs held before conscription. The labor leaders allowed high wage settlements in the public sector and fostered unionism in private industry, all of which fueled the inflation that had been started by wartime financing and debt. The trade union movement expanded rapidly until it reached nearly eight million during the hyperinflation era. With the loss of the eight-hour day in late 1923 and the so-called rationalization of industry, however, the gains of the revolutionary era mostly disappeared. Because society had been prepared neither for democracy nor especially for a lost war, many workers saw the revolution as a failure to attain the socialization that had been demanded by the prewar labor movement. Among the middle class and the old elite, the revolutionary era provided the resentment that fueled the myths that labor, its councils, or Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracies had stabbed the back of an allegedly victorious army. Certainly, many refused to accept that laboring people should have an equal say in public affairs and in the work world, attitudes which paved the way for fascism.

German society had been altered by the war and the subsequent revolutionary events. For the first time labor leaders achieved and exercised political power. With it they established parliamentary government. But the society—like labor—became more divided, and in the end the revolution provided no solid base for democracy or the defense of long-term labor interests.

Key Players

Ebert, Friedrich (1871-1925): As cohead of the German Social Democratic Party (1913-1918), leader of the national government (1918-1919), and president of the republic (1919-1925), Ebert moved increasingly toward the middle of the political landscape as national values replaced social ones. During the world war he employed his influence against the leftist radicals within the party and later utilized the military against the Spartacists and council governments. He became president of the Weimar Republic in February 1919.

Eisner, Kurt (1867-1919): This long-haired, bearded Jewish journalist appeared to embody the stereotype that anti-Semites despised. Moving from the right of the SPD to the Independents in his opposition to war, Eisner utilized the war weariness of the Bavarian populace to overthrow the monarchy in Munich on 7 November 1918. He advocated the continuation of council authority but lost electoral support and was assassinated as he was about to hand over power to the SPD.

Haase, Hugo (1864-1919): As cohead of the German Social Democratic Party (1911-1916) and leader of the Independent Social Democratic Party (1917-1919), Haase opposed imperialism and war. He sought compromise solutions and advocated a combination of parliamentary and council government. Ebert consistently outmaneuvered Haase, who could not unify the various factions among the Independents. He was assassinated in November 1919.

Legien, Carl (1861-1920): Legien organized the federation of trade unions in 1892 and helped expand them into a powerful social force. During the world war he supported the imperial regime and in November 1918 reached an agreement with Hugo Stinnes from the federation of industry. Legien opposed the council movement but strongly supported the republic and its parliamentary government against the putsch of reactionaries in March 1920.

Liebknecht, Karl (1871-1919): An antimilitary labor lawyer, Liebnecht led the SPD youth movement for a short time. His advocacy of radical tactics alienated him from the SPD leadership but he courageously opposed war credits beginning in 1914 and broke with caucus unity. By 1915 he spoke publicly against war, and in May 1916 he was arrested. He agitated against the war and the moderate policies of the SPD via the Spartacist league. After release from jail in October 1918, he refused to participate in the coalition government of Ebert and Haase and reluctantly supported the January uprising against the national government. He was murdered by volunteer (Freikorps) troops in January 1919.

Luxemburg, Rosa (1870-1919): A superb agitator and writer, Luxemburg became an outspoken radical in opposition to imperialism and in favor of mass strikes. Her radical tactics isolated her within the SPD and immediately upon the outbreak of the war, she attacked the leadership's approach. As a Spartacist faction leader she wrote against the war from jail. After her release she advocated council government. A feisty journalist and speaker, she advocated a revolutionary course against the SPD-USPD regime and helped found the Communist Party in January 1919. Soon after she was murdered by troops crushing the radical left revolt.

See also: Russian Revolutions.



Bessel, Richard. Germany after the First World War. Oxford:Clarendon Press, 1993.

Feldman, Gerald D. The Great Disorder: Politics, Economics and Society in the German Inflation, 1914-1924. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Morgan, David. The Socialist Left and the German Revolution. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975.

Winkler, Heinrich August. "Revolution by Consensus?Germany 1918-19." In The Problem of Revolution in Germany, 1789-1989, edited by Reinhard Rürup. Oxford: Berg, 2000, 93-108.


Buse, Dieter K. "Ebert and the German Crisis, 1917-1920."Central European History V (1972): 234-55.

—Dieter K. Buse