Germany, October 1918. The war was lost. By the “October reforms”, Germany became a constitutional monarchy whose Chancellor, Max von Baden, was responsible to the Reichstag. Nonetheless, the military commanders ordered, by their own authority, the navy in Kiel to set sail for a last battle against the British Royal Navy.
The war was already lost, and the sailors considered it a voyage into certain death, and refused to follow this order. Revolts broke out in the cities of Kiel and Wilhelmshaven. At the beginning of November, the revolt spread to other cities and states of the country, in many of which so-called workers’ and soldiers’ councils were established. All German ruling princes abdicated.
Revolution in Berlin
On November 9, 1918, the revolution reached Berlin. Emperor William II had left the capital days before, he was at the High Command headquarters in Spa, Belgium. Chancellor Max von Baden saw he could not control the situation any more, and that William could no longer be maintained. He urged him to abdicate in favor of a regent, to save at least the monarchy, but Wilhelm could not make up his mind. Finally, Max von Baden acted on his own judgment: without authorization, he declared that Emperor William II had abdicated. Shortly after, he resigned and made Friedrich Ebert of the SPD Chancellor.
Yet, it was too late, and could not calm down the demonstrating crowds. About 2 p.m. that day, the Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the German Republic from a balcony of the Reichstag. He had no legal authority to do so, but he wanted to be faster than Karl Liebknecht of the Spartacist League who, about the same time, proclaimed the Socialist Republic. On November 10, a Provisional Government was formed, the Council of People’s Deputies (in German: Rat der Volksbeauftragten), with Ebert at the top.
Parliamentarian democracy or Council system?
But what would the republican Germany be? The democratic parties in the political center and the majority of the Social Democrats wanted a parliamentarian democracy, whereas the left-wing parties claimed a councilsSystem. Ebert must have hated being at the top of a revolutionary government, he distrusted the workers’ and solders’ councils and struggled to prevent a social revolution that might led to a Bolshevik overthrow as in Russia. Today, historians agree that the danger of a Bolshevik revolution was over-estimated, but back people were in a state of shock. Yet, a congress of the German workers’ and soldiers’ councils hold in December in Berlin voted against the council system and in favor of elections to a national assembly that should decide about the future state system.
Blood is shed
At the end of 1918 and in January 1919, the so far peaceful revolution became bloody. Ebert, in his struggle to avoid a left-wing overthrow at any rate, decided to cooperate with the old elites, even had military forces march against striking workers and sailors. That alienated a lot of his supporters, and in the eyes of the left wing Socialists, made him a traitor. In January 1919, a left-wing uprising was violently crushed by the Reichswehr and paramilitary units, the Free Corps. The Spartacist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered by a Free Corps unit.
After that, political enmity became hatred. In Berlin, Saxony, the Rhineland and the Ruhr area general strikes and heavy fighting made the first years of the Weimar Republic almost civil-war-like.
The short 20th century | The Great War | German Revolution 1918/19 | Occupation of the Rhineland | Weimar Republic – Years of Crisis | Weimar Republic – Golden Era | Weimar Republic – Depression and Decline | Nazi Germany | World War II | Federal Republic of Germany