The German Revolution

The German Revolution forced the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, ending the Hohenzollern monarchy and plunging Germany into weeks of political struggle and uncertainty. The revolution began with the Kiel mutiny of late October, which within a week had spread to numerous towns and military bases across Germany. Revolutionary councils, in a similar mould to Russian soviets, formed across the nation and began demanding political reform. Most of these demands were socialist or social-democratic: an end to the war, the abolition of the monarchy, greater democratic representation and economic equality. On November 7th the revolution claimed its first royal scalp when Bavarian king Ludwig III fled across the border to Austria. On the same day in Berlin, radical revolutionaries demanded the abdication and trial of the Kaiser.

Faced with dwindling support in his entourage and from his military advisors, Wilhelm equivocated about whether or not to abdicate. Even if he was forced to give up the imperial throne, the deluded kaiser believed he could remain as king of Prussia. The decision was made for him on November 9th, when chancellor Max von Baden announced the Kaiser’s abdication, without his endorsement. Wilhelm sought advice from defence minister Wilhelm Groener and military chief Paul von Hindenburg, who told the isolated kaiser that the military could no longer support him. The following day, November 10th, he boarded a train and fled to the Netherlands, where he would remain until his death in 1941. Allied demands for his extradition and trial were ignored by the Dutch monarch.

Back in Germany, the abdication of the Kaiser was swiftly followed by chancellor’s resignation. During von Baden’s month in office he had been unable to broker a peace deal, so he departed, handing the reins of power to Friedrich Ebert. This was a move of questionable legality; the kaiser’s departure meant there was no head of state to appoint a new chancellor, while von Baden did not seek advice from his cabinet or endorsement from the Reichstag. Still, Ebert was probably the logical successor. He was the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Germany’s largest political party, and had been a member of von Baden’s cabinet. Ebert’s appointment was probably designed to appease the left-wing groups that had taken control of German cities, and thus take the sails out of the revolution.

As the ink was drying on Ebert’s signature, his SPD colleague Philipp Scheidemann made a proclamation – without Ebert’s permission or knowledge – declaring the beginning of the new German republic:

These enemies of the people are finished forever. The Kaiser has abdicated. He and his friends have disappeared; the people have won over all of them, in every field. Prince Max von Baden has handed over the office of Reich chancellor to representative Ebert. Our friend will form a new government consisting of workers of all socialist parties. This new government may not be interrupted in their work, to preserve peace and to care for work and bread. Workers and soldiers, be aware of the historic importance of this day: exorbitant things have happened. Great and incalculable tasks are waiting for us. Everything for the people. Everything by the people. Nothing may happen to the dishonour of the Labour Movement. Be united, faithful and conscientious. The old and rotten, the monarchy has collapsed. The new may live. Long live the German Republic!

But Ebert and Scheidemann were not the only contenders for power. Two hours after Scheidemann’s declaration, Karl Liebknecht – a far more radical socialist – issued his own proclamation, announcing the birth of the Free Socialist Republic of Germany. Liebknecht belonged to the Spartakusbund (or ‘Spartacus League’, often simply referred to as ‘Spartacists’). The Spartacists began as the radical left-wing of the SPD, before splitting from the party in 1915 over its support for World War I. They were led by Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, socialist activists and writers of Jewish descent who drew their inspiration from the 1917 Russian Revolution. They had no regard for Ebert and the moderate wing of the SPD, damning them as instruments of the bourgeoisie: pro-war, conservative and counter-revolutionary. The Spartacist program instead favoured an armed revolution to seize power and begin the formation of a German Soviet state. In the last weeks of 1918, as Ebert’s government was finalising the armistice and organising elections for a national assembly, the Spartacists were preparing for an armed uprising.

The revolution reignited on Christmas Eve 1918 when unpaid sailors occupied a government building, where they were joined by Spartacist members and armed guards. The Reichswehr was sent to arrest the protestors but withdrew after a brief standoff. On December 30th, the Spartacists held a congress in Berlin where they re-formed as the KPD (Communist Party of Germany). There, Rosa Luxemburg told those assembled:

The 9th of November was a weak, half-hearted, half-conscious and chaotic attempt to overthrow the existing public power and to put an end to class rule. What now must be done is that all the forces of the proletariat should be concentrated in an attack on the very foundations of capitalist society. There, at the base, where the individual employer confronts his wage slaves… there, step by step, we must seize the means of power from the rulers and take them into our own hands… And we must not forget that the revolution is able to do its work with extraordinary speed.

On January 5th 1919, the Spartacists attempted an armed takeover of Berlin. Hundreds of industrial workers and unionists were given arms and ordered to seize critical points around the capital. Telegraph offices, police stations, government buildings and the SPD headquarters were all occupied; the revolutionaries also barricaded or manned checkpoints on key roads and intersections. Liebknecht and Luxemburg also called for a general strike, hoping to trigger a workers’ revolution against the Ebert government. The Spartacist uprising was initially successful, chiefly because it had caught unprepared Berlin police and government units by surprise. In the first few days of the revolution, the Spartacists won most of their street fights and managed to paralyse significant areas of Berlin. But while Liebknecht had orchestrated the capture of Berlin and drummed up support from a half-million Berliners, he had no clear plan for seizing power. With the uprising at its peak, the Spartacist leader and his 53-person revolutionary committee dithered; rather than demanding the overthrow of the government, Liebknecht withdrew to an office to write newspaper articles.

Meanwhile, the SPD government was coddling together political and military support to resist the revolution. Ebert recalled defence minister Gustav Noske and sent him to Berlin. Noske began organising the mobilisation of around 3,000 Freikorps, or volunteer militias comprised of former soldiers. The men of the Freikorps were, for the most part, fiercely nationalist and anti-communist. More importantly, they were trained, battle-hardened troops who were still equipped with weapons of war: rifles and machine guns, artillery, even flamethrowers. By January 10th, these Freikorps were massing and preparing in the suburbs of western Berlin. They advanced into the city the following morning and engaged in a series of bloody street battles with the rebels, who for the most part were hopelessly outgunned.

“During the first months of 1919, we lived under siege in Berlin and under the terror of martial law. Any political activity was prohibited for us communists. We had no journal and no legal means to confront the lies and defamations of the government and the press. Any expression of public discontent, anything that did not suit the authorities, was blamed on the Spartacists… We had to organise illegally and under the most dangerous conditions. But the death of our party leaders could not keep us from following their vision. The KPD had to be consolidated.”
Karl Retzlaw, Spartacist

It took less than three days for the Freikorps to crush the Spartacist uprising and capture Berlin. Its leaders, Liebknecht and Luxemburg, were chased through the suburbs for another two days, before being betrayed and captured. Luxemburg was beaten to death with rifle butts, her body hurled into Berlin’s largest canal. Liebknecht was shot in the head and dumped at a local morgue. These summary executions invited criticism from Ebert and his ministers, who promised that those responsible would be held accountable. But evidence obtained later suggests that Noske and probably Ebert authorised their murder. Two Freikorps members were tried but given light sentences. Around 100 other Spartacists and 17 Freikorps were killed during the battle for Berlin.

Though the Spartacists had been defeated, the German Revolution had not yet breathed its last. In April 1919 communists attempted another revolution, this time in southern Germany. Taking advantage of local disorder, they seized control of the local government in Bavaria and declared an independent Soviet republic. They named Munich as their capital, appointed ministers and established contact with Bolshevik rulers in Russia. But the Bavarian communists were only marginally more successful than their Spartacist cousins. In May, after just four weeks in power, the Bavarian Soviet was attacked by 9,000 Reichswehr soldiers and 30,000 members of the Freikorps. After days of bitter fighting, control of Bavaria was returned to the Weimar government. More than 1,700 communists were killed in the battle for Munich or subsequently executed by the Freikorps.

1. The Kiel mutiny inspired revolutionary councils to appear in German cities, leading to the abdication of the Kaiser.
2. In November 1918 both Scheidemann (SPD) and Liebknecht (Spartacists) proclaimed a new national government.
3. The Spartacists formed a communist party then launched an attempt to take over Berlin and the Weimar government.
4. The revolution was defeated after the SPD mobilised several units of Freikorps, who crushed the revolution in days.
5. In May 1919 another socialist revolutionary government, this time in Bavaria, was also suppressed by the Freikorps.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The German Revolution”, Alpha History, 2018, accessed [today’s date],