By Robert Gerwarth

Oxford University Press. 329 pages. £20. ISBN 978-0-19-954647-3

Reviewed by Jim Burns



By Robert Gerwarth

Oxford University Press. 329 pages. £20. ISBN 978-0-19-954647-3

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Was there a revolution in Germany in 1918? I suppose for many people the word conjures up pictures of crowds in the streets and, depending on which revolution comes to mind, people being shot down by police or troops defending the government of the day, or the people storming into the parliament buildings and appointing themselves as the new rulers. There are other scenarios, but overall the general impression is one of noise and excitement and varying levels of violence.

It’s true that noise and excitement and armed troops and crowds were in evidence during events in Germany in November 1918, but there was surprisingly little violence. That came later. For the most part the revolution in Germany, and it was, “as much a cultural and social revolution affecting gender relations and citizen rights as it was a political one”, was achieved without the sort of turmoil evident in Russia. There were elements on the Left in Berlin and elsewhere who would have preferred to see blood on the pavements and bodies in the gutters, but they were mostly sidelined by the mass of people who wanted change, but not of the kind taking place in Moscow and St Petersburg.

The situation in Germany in November can best be described as chaotic. Four years of war had weakened the will of many people to carry on fighting. The British naval blockade of German ports had reduced imports of food and other essentials to the point where the civilian population was experiencing levels of rationing that were leading to malnutrition. Soldiers at the front were also affected. There had been a surge of optimism early in 1918 when a major German offensive on the Western Front had appeared to have been initially successful, but it soon petered out. And with America sending large numbers of troops to Europe it was obvious that it was only a matter of time before Germany would be forced to sue for a peace deal. It wasn’t necessarily the way that diehards in the armed forces wanted the war to end. They thought it was better to go down fighting, even if defeated.   

Matters came to a head in the ports. The German High Seas fleet had not ventured out in strength since the indecisive battle of Jutland in 1916. Submarines had been the prime factor in warfare at sea, and it was the policy of unrestricted attacks on shipping, targeting any sort of ship, neutral or not, deemed to be sailing to an Allied port, that had brought America into the war. But if the submariners felt that they were dedicated to what they were doing, the majority of sailors in Kiel and other ports didn’t share their sentiments. When it became known that there were plans to take the fleet out for a final confrontation with the Royal Navy, the sailors mutinied and refused to obey orders. Their view was that there was little point in being killed fighting an unnecessary battle in a war that was clearly lost. Germany’s allies – Bulgaria, Turkey, the Austro-Hungarian Empire – had already collapsed, and it was only a matter of time before Germany had to capitulate.

It’s interesting that the German Revolution started in the form that it did. Unlike other revolutions, it didn’t begin in a central location, such as Paris in 1789 or St Petersburg in 1917.  It kicked off in Kiel and quickly spread to other ports, and to towns and cities across the country. Soldiers in garrisons soon joined sailors and striking factory workers in setting up Soldiers and Workers Councils, sometimes under the guidance of politicised militants who had been inspired by the example of the Russian Revolution. But spontaneity may have been as much a part of what happened as any system of politically-motivated action. A desire to see the war ended, food shortages dealt with, and a fair peace deal arrived at, were key factors in the commitment to participation in the events of November, 1918.

In Berlin there were differences between those who wanted to immediately ask the Allies, primarily Britain, France, and America, for peace negotiations, and those who wished to try to sustain a unity that would enable the German delegation to negotiate from a strong position. Contact had been made with the American President, Woodrow Wilson, and he had suggested that any peace agreement should not involve questions of annexations or indemnities. But when negotiators from both sides met it was obvious that France and Britain were setting the terms and financial concessions and territorial adjustments were prime components of any peace plan.

Using the word “negotiations” in the context of what happened is misleading. The Germans were simply given a list of the terms the Allies thought appropriate and told they weren’t up for discussion. It was a case of accept them or the war would continue and almost inevitably lead to an Allied occupation of Germany.  Leaving aside the financial aspects involved, Germany lost large amounts of its territory and its overseas colonies, and had its armed forces cut to the point where they could no longer present a threat.

The terms shocked most Germans, no matter what their political persuasions were, but the government in Berlin, newly formed after the Kaiser had been forced to abdicate, finally had to accept them. Faced with a continuing blockade of German ports, unrest in the street, the likelihood that a deteriorating domestic situation could lead to a revolution along the lines of what had happened in Russia, and a desperate need to establish some semblance of normality, they had little choice in the matter. But it was clear that what was seen as the craven behaviour of the liberals would provide a breeding ground for anger and resentment among right-wing elements in the country. The army had not been defeated on the battlefield, they claimed. It had been brought to its knees by left-wingers and liberals at home.

Despite all the problems that existed, Germany had so far not seen violence of the kind happening in Russia, where the Revolution and the ensuing Civil War had torn the country apart. The Kaiser and his family had departed without any great fuss, and a liberal government, dominated by the Social Democrats (SPD), was quite firmly in control. When elections were held early in 1919 the SPD had the most votes, and the voting pattern generally showed that the majority of Germans were in favour of a democratically elected, moderate form of government. There were groups on the Left and the Right which didn’t agree, but they were relatively small and seemingly insignificant.

Small as they were they could still be troublesome, especially when their leanings were leftwards. The Spartacists, led by Karl Liebnecht and Rosa Luxemburg, launched an uprising in Berlin in an attempt to overthrow the government. It was probably doomed to fail from the start. The authorities still had some troops at their disposal, and additionally called on the Freikorps, an organisation largely comprised of ex-soldiers who had bitterly opposed the agreed peace terms. They had no love for the new liberal government, but hated left-wingers even more. The rising was easily suppressed in a few days of street fighting. Liebnecht and Luxemburg were both taken prisoner and murdered by members of the Freikorps.

It was a similar story in Munich when there was an attempt to set up a Bavarian Socialist Republic. It had little support outside the city and even within it failed to organise food supplies and other essential services in a way that would inspire confidence from the general population. It created a workers’ militia, supposedly to defend the Republic, but when faced by the ruthless Freikorps and regular army troops it soon melted away. It always seems to have been a dream of left-wingers that arming the working-class would guarantee a successful revolution. Perhaps the example of Russia persuaded them that it was the case?  But the Bolsheviks had armed sailors, units of the army, and Trotsky’s relatively well-trained and disciplined Red Guards to call on. Simply handing out guns to factory workers, clerks, and others, was never likely to lead to success while there were enough motivated troops and police ready to support the authorities. When there were major strikes in the Ruhr they were suppressed, again with help from the Freikorps. The strikers, led by left-wing social democrats and communists, formed a 50,000 strong Red Army, initially as a self-defence force, and increasingly as a means to press for radical reforms, such as the nationalisation of major industries. When the army moved in the fighting was notably intense, with around 1,000 workers and 250 troops killed.

Robert Gerwarth’s book is primarily about the Revolution, but it’s legitimate to look at what happened once a degree of stability was achieved. The government, led by Friedrich Ebert, faced massive problems, not least of which was the question of paying off the debts owed to Britain and France. There was soon the rising inflation which reached levels that ordinary people struggled to cope with. Visitors to Berlin from America and Britain lived well on exchange rates which meant that they could use the city almost as a playground and the people almost as their playthings.

This is the Berlin we like to see in feature films and documentaries with cabarets, sex clubs, cafés and bars thriving. What was happening in the working-class districts of the city is rarely alluded to. Whatever benefits built up as the economy steadied and expanded didn’t filter down to the lower-levels of society to noticeable effect. And the frustration and anger persuaded many workers to often incline towards the extreme Left or the extreme Right when it came to their politics. But, as Gerwarth notes, “in 1928, in the last general election before the Great Depression, a clear majority of voters supported parties that were not hostile to the Republic”.

It was when unemployment and hunger started to rise after 1929 that membership of both the Communist Party and the Nazi Party began to increase. Those factors, and the slavish role of the German Communist Party (KPD) in following Stalin’s orders by refusing to cooperate with the SPD (referred to a “social fascists”), possibly allowed Hitler to come to power in 1933. It’s a matter of contention whether or not the communists could have stopped the Nazis in the streets. From a military point of view Hitler and his supporters were much better prepared, and could probably count on support from the police and units of the army. 

In some ways what the Weimar Government achieved in its lifetime, between 1918 and 1933, can be seen as quite remarkable. Leaving aside the reparations and the inflation, new laws were passed which established a system of proportional representation. and which enfranchised women for the first time.  Their votes were probably a major factor in the 1919 election. There were many more women than men who were entitled to vote because of the large loss of life among men who fought in the First World War. There were also new laws which led to greater degrees of sexual and social freedom for women.

It perhaps wasn’t all perfect. There were still many social and legal restrictions to be overcome, and attitudes outside Berlin, and especially in rural areas, were often extremely conservative. Again, too many of our views of Germany in the 1920s have been determined by a narrow awareness of what went on in Berlin. Little is known about the countryside and even towns and cities where citizens probably breathed sighs of relief when communists and their sympathisers were quickly sent packing. And where radical cabarets and gay and lesbian nightclubs were not looked on favourably. One of the appeals of the Nazi Party to many people was that it appeared to support traditional values regarding the family and middle-class morality. And to be generally in favour of good order in everyday life. There were always people waiting in the wings and ready to oppose any form of social, sexual, and political liberalisation.

November 1918 provides a first-rate survey of events and personalities surrounding the revolution in Germany. Robert Gerwarth takes the reader from 1914 to 1918 in brisk fashion, and then describes how and why the revolution came about. From there he shows, by contrasting the social structure of a nation going confidently into war with that taking it out of the war, why a revolution was inevitable. And it was a revolution. Those who dreamt of a socialist state didn’t think so, but in terms of offering the great majority of the population a better way of life it was, for a time, successful. That it ultimately failed, and why it did so, can be argued about. As can what would have happened had the Nazis not been able to seize on the opportunities offered by the onset of the Depression. But due acknowledgement ought to be made to those politicians and others who, during the Weimar years, tried to reconstruct and reform a badly damaged society in particularly difficult circumstances.

Robert Gerwarth has written a detailed account of a fascinating topic. The writing is clear and avoids  jargon and theory. The research is thorough, as is made evident by the notes and the comprehensive bibliography.  His book has academic credibility but can also be recommended for the general reader.