The German Revolution was a period of turmoil and political change that began at the end of World War I and ended with the adoption of the Weimar constitution. Some of its pivotal events included the Kiel mutiny, the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the formation of the Weimar Council of People’s Ministers and the National Assembly, the Spartacist uprising in Berlin and several short-lived socialist republics across Germany.
Beginnings in Kiel
The German Revolution began with the Kiel mutiny, an uprising instigated by disgruntled German sailors in late October. Within a week, the uprising had spread to towns and military bases across Germany.
Revolutionary councils, bearing some similarities to Russian soviets, formed across the nation and demanded political reform. Most of these demands were socialist or social-democratic in nature. They included an end to the war, the abolition of the monarchy, greater democratic representation and economic equality.
Faced with dwindling support, not just on the streets but also among his inner circle, Wilhelm II was at risk of losing his throne. By late October, his chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, was advising him to abdicate. The Kaiser equivocated, believing that even if he was forced to give up the imperial German throne he might remain as King of Prussia.
The Kaiser abdicates
On November 7th, the revolution claimed its first significant victory 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.
The decision was made for him on November 9th when Baden announced the Kaiser’s abdication, without his approval or 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, the former Kaiser boarded a train and fled Germany. He took refuge in the Netherland, where he signed a formal instrument of abdication on November 28th. He remained in Holland until his death in 1941. There were many Allied demands for his extradition and trial but they were rebuffed by the Dutch monarch.
Ebert handed power
Back in Germany, the abdication of the Kaiser was immediately followed by Baden’s resignation. During his month in office, Baden had been unable to broker a peace deal, nor was he fully committed to overseeing Germany’s transition to a democratic government.
Baden departed, also on November 9th, declaring that Friedrich Ebert would replace him as chancellor (itself a move of questionable legality, given there was no head of state to make such an appointment).
Regardless of the validity of his appointment, Ebert was probably the logical choice. He was the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Germany’s largest political party, and had been a member of Baden’s cabinet. The appointment of a moderate SPD figure was probably intended to keep the government in responsible hands while appeasing left-wing groups.
Two republics proclaimed
As the ink was drying on Ebert’s letter of appointment, his SPD colleague Philipp Scheidemann delivered a spontaneous public proclamation – without Ebert’s permission or knowledge – and declared 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!”
Around the same time, Spartakusbund leader Karl Liebknecht was addressing supporters at the Lustgarten, a park in central Berlin. In his own proclamation, Liebknecht also declared the birth of a German republic – but one for “all tribes, with no more servants, where every honest worker will receive his honest pay. The rule of capitalism, which has turned Europe into a cemetery, is broken.”
The revolutionary councils
The new government was well received by many but it faced one significant problem. The Kiel mutiny had led to the formation of “Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils” across the country. By early November, these councils could be found in Kiel, Brunswick, Frankfurt, Munich and numerous other cities and military bases.
To observers, the councils bore some resemblance to the soviets who instigated the Russian Revolution. While a handful of the German councils were led by revolutionary socialists, most councils had more moderate aims: an end to the war, the abolition of the monarchy and aristocratic privilege and the formation of a democratic government.
Despite this, the new leaders in Berlin were concerned about the councils, fearing they could be easily radicalised and exploited by socialists. They were eager to avoid a situation similar to the Dual Power in Russia the previous year, where the Provisional Government was unable to rule effectively due to non-cooperation from the soviet councils.
A new government
On November 9th, as Scheidemann was declaring a German republic and Ebert was taking over the chancellorship, the leaders of these workers’ councils were assembling and organising in Berlin for what appeared to be a grab for power. This required fast action from Ebert, who decided to take charge of the revolution before the radicals beat him to it.
On November 10th, Ebert formed a six-man executive committee called the Rat der Volksbeauftragten (‘Council of People’s Ministers or Deputies). Its membership was divided equally between the SPD and the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). Among those on the committee were Ebert, Scheidemann and USPD leader Hugo Haase. Two days later, the Council of Ministers issued a declaration assuring Germans that its members were socialists and also promising several rights and freedoms.
The new government’s other task was to obtain the support of the military, in case action was needed to suppress a radical socialist revolution. This was also secured on November 10th, in a late-night phone call between Ebert and General Wilhelm Groener. The Ebert-Groener Pact, as their agreement became known, promised military backing for the SPD government, in return for moderate policies and protections for the General Staff and officer corps.
A historian’s view:
“The lack of popular memory of this historic event led a recent editor to name this political transformation of German the ‘Forgotten Revolution’. Older German textbooks often mention the defeat of Germany in the war and the establishment of the Weimar Republic without reference to the period of upheavals and political contestation that occurred in between. What remains neglected is the key role a mass movement of soldiers and workers played in challenging the German admiralty and bringing an end to the war. It was primarily through the political agency of ordinary people that Germany was transformed from an autocratic and deeply hierarchical society into a democratic republic with universal suffrage and social rights.”
Gaard Kets and James Muldoon
1. The Kiel mutiny was the spark that ignited the German Revolution. It inspired the formation of workers’ and soldiers’ councils in towns and military bases across Germany.
2. As the threat of revolution increased, Chancellor Max von Baden advised the Kaiser to abdicate. Wilhelm II equivocated, however, believing he could remain King of Prussia.
3. On November 9th 1918, Baden arbitrarily announced the Kaiser’s abdication and both Scheidemann and Liebknecht proclaimed the birth of a new German republic.
4. Baden resigned as chancellor on November 9th and appointed Ebert as his replacement, a constitutionally invalid action but designed to keep the government in moderate hands.
5. Ebert and his ministers then forged an alliance with the military, in order to protect the government both from the workers’ and soldiers’ councils and a reactionary militarist counter-revolution.