The German Revolution, 1918-1919

Every year the picturesque city of Munich hosts the world famous Oktoberfest, but this modern-day image of beer tents, parties and traditional dress contrasts sharply with the scenes that played out in this same city just under a hundred years ago. On the 7th November 1918 the Bavarian Soviet Republic was declared in Munich, just one example of the many political troubles which threatened to overwhelm Germany at that time. As the First World War (1914-1918) drew to a close, it seemed as though Germany might follow Russia into the throes of revolution and civil war.  The revolutionary events of 1918 and 1919 will be traced here, from the last days of World War One to the first days of the Weimar Republic.

The War comes to an end

By the summer of 1918, many in Germany saw that the war was finally coming to an end. However, there was not a great deal of light at the end of what must have been a long, dark and blood-soaked tunnel. The devastating loss of human life had had a massive physical and psychological impact on the German nation. They country’s infrastructure had been torn apart by war and the military, monarchy and government had been weakened by the toll of war. The years of 1914-1918 had seen Germany go from being a powerful, industrial nation, to a nation on the brink of collapse and starvation. Prominent figures, industrialists and military leaders were widely vilified and despised. The war ended because Germany did not have the will to go on. In the eyes of many, Germany must have seemed ripe for a revolution.

On the brink of revolution

This revolution very nearly came to pass. When peace finally arrived in November 1918, the government, led by Prince Max von Baden, resigned and Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated as the country slipped into varying degrees of revolution and social unrest. Discontent and hunger were rife. The Imperial Navy mutinied in Kiel. In Berlin, workers’ councils were formed. In Munich, as we have already heard, a separate socialist republic was declared for the entire region of Bavaria.

By January 1919, Berlin was in the grip of a general strike, as a number of communists advocated the overthrow of the post-war government, which had been formed after the resignation of Prince Max von Baden. Communists and workers armed themselves in preparation for what has become known as the Spartacist Revolt. The revolt culminated in its violent suppression when the government ordered the Freikorps – volunteer soldiers – to attack the workers and end the unrest. (One such member of the right wing Freikorps was Ernst Rohm (pictured), an early associate of Adolf Hitler’s and in 1934, the principle victim of Hitler’s ‘Night of the Long Knives‘). Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the two leaders of the revolt, were murdered. In April, the ailing revolution in Munich made another attempt to secure a socialist future in Bavaria, only to be crushed again by the Freikrops.

Pulled back from the edge of revolution

Yet although the nation was in a state of revolutionary turmoil, it was also beginning to stabilise itself. The aforementioned revolutions were eventually suppressed with the aid of the Freikorps. Prince Max von Baden had ceded control to the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) leader, Friedrich Ebert (right). Ebert managed to strike a deal with the conservative military leaders, promising reform not revolution, and thus ensured that the government could rely on the power of the armed forces. This was a major success for Ebert and ultimately secured victory over the communist revolutionaries. While communists may have called for the overthrow of Ebert’s government, they were not able to achieve this aim.

So, elections were held, a coalition government was formed and the constitution of the new republic was finalised in August 1919. It is true that this constitution was created in the town of Weimar – and thus informally lent its name to the newly formed Germany, the Weimar Republic – because the situation in Berlin was still too volatile for the negotiations to take place there, but the constitution was formed nonetheless.

Imperial Germany was gone, and in her place was a democratic, not a socialist, state. It may have seemed as though Germany would follow Russia into revolution, but in the end she did not.  However, this year of turmoil and unrest highlights the impact that the First World War had on Germany. Moreover, as we know from what, and who, emerged as the main figures of German public and political life in the 1930s, it is clear that the suppression of communist revolution and the consolidation of the Weimar Republic did not signal the end of Germany’s political and ideological struggles.

Mallory Russell
See also Mallory’s article on the Russian and Soviet concept of the ‘New People’.
See Mallory’s blog:

Read more about the Great War in World War One: History In An Hour and about Germany and the rise of Nazism in Nazi Germany: History In An Hour both published by Harper Press.

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