William Pelz’s People’s History of the German Revolution is a vivid and accessible introduction to socialism’s greatest lost revolution, finds Tom Whittaker
As the centenary of the Russian Revolution of 2017 passed relatively unnoticed, then it was no surprise that the, already long neglected, German Revolution of 1918 did not fare much better. Armistice Day on 11th November was noted, but with scant reference to events in Germany only two days earlier. Even less attention will be paid, it seems likely, to the centenary of the Kapp Putsch on March 13th 1920, when a military attempt to do away with the new democratic republic was stopped in its tracks ignominiously by the outbreak of a general strike paralysing the whole of Berlin, and reviving the revolutionary spirit of 1918-19.
On 9th November 1918, a mass popular revolution, combined with a revolt amongst the rank and file of Germany’s armed forces to end the reign of Kaiser Wilhelmine II and with it, the Prussian dominated autocratic regime in place since the unification of Germany in 1871. The German Revolution was undoubtedly the decisive event in bringing World War I to a swift conclusion.
The contrast with World War II is instructive: by 1944 at the latest it was clear to most Germans that the war was lost. Yet Hitler’s reign of terror meant that ordinary Germans were forced to fight on to the bitter end at tremendous cost to themselves and to the many other victims of Nazism. Many on the nationalist right in Germany would have liked to see a similar fight to the death in World War One. At the end of October 1918, the German admirals ordered the fleet at Kiel out to sea for a final showdown with the British in order to preserve German naval honour. The rank-and-file sailors had other ideas and mutinied, igniting a revolt that spread quickly throughout the country.
Councils of revolutionary sailors, soldiers and workers were established as military discipline collapsed and the revolt fused with strikes and protests amongst civilians. To many people, both on the right and the left, it seemed that the German working class were about to emulate their Russian counterparts in establishing a second Soviet Republic. Such a prospect was without doubt anathema to the dominant political force within the German working class, the majority social democrats. Freidrich Ebert, leader of the SPD, wanted to keep the Kaiser as the head of parliamentary monarchy, he confessed to ‘hating the revolution like sin’.
However, deeply afraid of the radicalism of the masses, the SPD leaders acted to place themselves at the head of the popular revolution so as to divert it into ‘safe’ parliamentary channels. Philipp Schiedemann, famously abandoned his lunch with Ebert to announce both the resignation of the Kaiser and the proclamation of Germany a parliamentary republic on 9th November. Neither Ebert nor the Kaiser had not been consulted, but Schiedemannrecognised that the massed ranks of demonstrators outside the Reichstag would wait no longer. Indeed, only a short distance away Karl Liebknecht of the Spartacist League, the revolutionary, anti-war group which had split from the SPD in 1914, had already proclaimed the socialist republic.
Almost immediately after Wilhelm’s abdication was announced, Ebert signed a pact with the head of the army General Groener. As Plez makes clear, it was a Faustian bargain; the army would not move to overthrow the SPD led government and, in return, Ebert would pledge to restore discipline in the army and fight ‘Bolshevism’. The pact established a pattern of collaboration between the SPD led government the army and nationalist right that was to lead to repeated episodes of bloody counterrevolution throughout 1919 and into 1920.
Alas, the forces of the inexperienced revolutionary left grouped in the infant GermanCommunist Party (KPD) and supported by many in the Independent Socialists (USPD), allowed themselves to be goaded into a series of premature and isolated uprisings. In Berlin in January 1919 and again in Munich, attempts to establish a workers’ council republic were made before the revolutionary movement had been allowed the chance to fully develop across the country. Using the army and assisted by right-wing irregulars, the notorious Freikorps, Ebert’s government crushed these attempts at proletarian revolution with relative ease, murdering much of the leadership of the KPD, including Karl Liebknecht and RosaLuxemburg in the process.
From, the ranks of the Freikorps would emerge the cadres of Hitler’s nascent Nazi movement. Meanwhile, the revolution’s defeat in Germany left Soviet Russia facing isolation, greatly assisting the rise of Stalinism. The Weimar Republic saw real gains economic, political and social, for the German working class. However, in making half a revolution, they were to ultimately dig their own graves. The seeds of violent right-wing reaction had been sewn and in the turmoil of the great depression after 1929, Hitler’s Nazis would come to power to complete the counterrevolution.
Legacy of the revolution
Overshadowed by the legacy of the Nazi Third Reich, the revolution of 1918 largely faded into obscurity. Historians came to speak of ‘deutsche sonderweg’, a special path of German development that proceeded directly from Bismarck, the Kaisers and WWI, through to Hitler and the Nazis. Its left-wing revolutionaries forgotten, Germany was irredeemably nationalist, authoritarian and militaristic.
However, for Marxist historians, the German revolution has always possessed a particular importance as a reminder of the highly contingent nature of history and of class struggle. For the Marxist historians who ‘rediscovered’ the German revolution in the aftermath of 1968, Germany 1918-1923 provided the ultimate warning of the damage that could be wrought in the absence of Bolshevik type party. Both Pierre Broué and Chris Harman’ssocialist histories of the 1970s and early 1980s demonstrated how the KPD’soscillations between adventurism and passivity led to a series of clear revolutionary opportunities being tragically missed.
Pelz’s People’s History of the German Revolution, written at a significantly greater distance from the events in Germany it describes, marks a welcome and accessible return to theGerman Revolution by a left-wing historian. In a hundred and forty pages, Pelz gets through an impressive amount, with chapters on industrialisation and the rise of the working class, the impact of World War I, the overthrow of the Kaiser, the attempts to take the revolution further, and the right-wing counter-revolution that unleashed.
Pelz’s broad narrative of the course of the revolution is not dissimilar from these early works discussed, and despite the book’s title, he takes events right up to extraordinary crisis year of 1923. However, there is, as one might expect from a ‘people’s history’, a ‘bottom-up’ focus on the struggles of the exploited and oppressed of German society. Events are not solely viewed through the prism of their political organisations of the working class and their leadership, as can sometimes be the case with Broue and Harman.
A women’s revolution
This approach is particularly beneficial with regards to women’s role within the revolution and the challenge this posed to traditional gender norms. Pelz suggests that forgetting the importance of women to historical development is more of a rule than an exception and the German revolution is no exception. Yet women in Germany were amongst the first people to break the political truce of 1914 and take to the streets in protest at the privations suffered on the homefront. Moreover, the drafting of women into industry meant that women made up the bulk of wartime strikers, according to Pelz 62% in 1916 and 75% in1917.
Pelz credits German women with having built Europe’s most impressive female suffrage movement and as the war came to a close, equal political rights could no longer be delayed. A coalition of bourgeois parties may have blocked an SPD proposal to extend the vote to women on 8th November 1918, however, to quote Pelz this was an:
‘Insignificant delay as the Revolution gave women equal voting rights three days later. Still, it was a delay that showed once again the true face of SPD parliamentarianism. Even while the waves of revolution were sweeping away age old royal houses and defying ancient traditions, German Social Democracy continued play acting as the old order’s loyal opposition.’
Nor was women’s involvement in the revolution confined to economic opposition or campaigning for the vote, Pelz described how they would surround both workplaces and army barracks to call on workers and soldiers to join the revolution. As Clara Zetkin said, the revolution was only possible because of the mass involvement of women. This was a point not lost on the proto-fascist Freikorps, who saw the ‘feminized crowd’ as both threatening and deserving of violence. The killing of Rosa Luxemburg being a well-known, but hardly isolated episode of violence against women.
The failure of the German Revolution has world-historical importance of the first order, since it led both to the Stalinisation of the Russian Revolution and the collapse of Germany itself into Nazism. Its importance goes beyond the strictly historical, however, as questions of revolutionary strategy that were debated then have kept on recurring ever since, and remain central today.
Revolutionaries then needed to understand how to relate to different reformist currents in the labour movement, and to the different paces in which working-class consciousness was developing, and so the various political trajectories at work. Analysis of these events and the failures, as well as successes, of the radical left remain of great value to present struggles. In these areas, Broué’s and Harman’s histories are still the essential reading on the German Revolution. Nonetheless, Pelz’s short history is a vivid, clear and accessible introduction to one of the most important episodes of working-class history in the twentieth century.
More articles from this author
- Starmer's purge continues: Bristol members suspended for supporting Corbyn
- The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty - review
- Why pulling down Colston's statue was right
- The dawn of Thatcherism, 40 years on
- Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today - book review
- Bristol marches to demand justice for Grenfell 9 months on
- Poll Tax 1990: the revolt that sank Thatcher - video