The revolutionary Karl Liebknecht proclaimed a “free socialist republic” from the balcony of the Imperial Palace in Berlin on 9 November 1918.
Thousands of hands of armed workers and soldiers shot up when he asked, “Who wants the world revolution?”
Four years before, German Kaiser Wilhelm II addressed a patriotic crowd from the same balcony as Europe plunged into the First World War. Now a revolution had toppled the Kaiser and ended the slaughter.
Troops mutinied while workers organised mass strikes and demonstrations. In many parts of Germany they set up workers’ councils that challenged the political authority of the central government.
One newspaper report from Bavaria described how “no elegant gentleman or well-to-do lady dared show themselves in the streets”. “It was as if the bourgeoisie had vanished,” it said.
“Only workers—wage slaves—were to be seen. But they were seen with arms.”
The German Revolution showed the power of the working class to challenge those at the top of society. It showed how rapidly ordinary people can throw off reactionary ideas such as nationalism during struggle.
The upheavals were part of a wave of revolt that swept Europe following the Russian Revolution. In October 1917 workers seized power and began running society through workers’ councils, called soviets.
But backward Russia was left isolated and under siege from remnants of the old order and Europe’s rulers.
Germany was one of the most advanced capitalist countries with a big socialist and working class movement. Vladimir Lenin, leader of Russia’s revolutionary Bolshevik party, warned, “Without a German revolution, we are doomed.”
Germany’s revolt gave the revolution a chance to succeed.
British Liberal prime minister Lloyd George observed the upheavals nervously. “The whole existing order, in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses from one end of Europe to another,” he wrote.
Germany’s revolution began when sailors at Kiel’s naval base mutinied. Faced with mounting desertions in the trenches and growing unrest from workers, the German High Command knew the war was lost.
The Kaiser was forced to accept a new government that included Social Democratic Party (SPD) ministers in October 1918. The SPD backed the war, but was still the largest and most influential working class party.
Germany’s rulers hoped its inclusion would placate workers’ resistance and let them cobble together a peace treaty that kept the old order intact. They underestimated the severity of the situation.
Their British and French imperialist rivals sensed an opportunity to redraw the map of Europe in their interests. They wanted the Kaiser’s total surrender, not a negotiated peace.
So the German High Command ordered the Kiel fleet to take on the British in an attempt to avoid humiliating surrender terms.
In Wilhelmshaven sailors put out the ships’ boilers to stop the fleet leaving port. Less than a week later on 23 October, Kiel exploded in revolt. Following a week of disobedience and demonstrations, a mass meeting of 20,000 people elected a sailors’ council.
By the following morning, it had political control of the whole port town in northern Germany.
And within 48 hours, unrest had returned to Cuxhaven and Wilhemshaven. Mass demonstrations and general strikes gripped both port towns, then people elected workers’ and sailors’ councils that took political control.
As the revolution spread across northern Germany, workers began to challenge some of the labour movement’s more moderate leaders.
In Hamburg there was a meeting of the Independent SPD, a left wing split from the SPD. Some of its members such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were revolutionary socialists grouped around the Spartacist League. Others were reformists, but opposed the SPD’s support for the war.
The Independent SPD meeting called for all imprisoned sailors to be freed, but rejected calls for a workers’ council. This wasn’t enough for large numbers of revolutionary workers.
A 100-strong group took over the sailors’ union headquarters and called for a demonstration the following day. Some 40,000 people came onto the streets and voted for a “republic of workers’ councils”.
They formed a workers’ council. A new revolutionary newspaper in the city, The Red Flag, proclaimed, “This is the beginning of the German Revolution—of the world revolution.”
Revolution swept through other big industrial cities. Only in the capital Berlin did the ruling class cling to power. SPD ministers thought their party’s working class roots would allow them to hold back revolt. And the German High Command thought loyal troops and the police could maintain order.
Both were in for a shock.
Liebknecht issued a leaflet calling for revolution, which matched the mood of many workers and soldiers in Berlin. One newspaper report noted with alarm that the supposedly loyal “Kaiser Alexander Regiment has gone over to the revolution”.
Tens of thousands of workers in all Berlin’s factories joined a general strike. The revolt was led by Liebknecht, the Spartacists and the revolutionary shop stewards movement based around Berlin’s metal workers.
Columns of workers and soldiers seized the Imperial Palace and the police headquarters. Conservative chancellor Prince Max handed over his position to the SPD leader Frederick Ebert in an effort to hold back the workers’ movement.
The right wing SPD leadership was solidly opposed to revolution and had even dropped opposition to the monarchy. But it couldn’t openly oppose the workers who were revolting. When thousands marched on the Reichstag parliament building Ebert’s right hand man, Philipp Scheidemann, was forced to step outside and address the crowd. In increasing desperation at the crowd’s revolutionary demands he declared, “Long live the German Republic.”
The monarchy was gone but the old ruling class, the generals and the bosses were still determined to regain the upper hand.
As the revolution took hold, the future of German capitalism hung in the balance. Scheidemann’s proclamation came just two hours before Liebknecht declared the socialist republic. Which would win out?
The workers’ councils did not make a bid to seize state power. Instead they gradually handed it back to the government. And revolutionary socialists lacked the organisation to successfully argue against the retreats.
The ruling class used the breathing space to launch a vicious counter-offensive.
The SPD government and the German High Command organised a new paramilitary force to restore order. The Freikorps was made up of middle class officers and shock troops loyal to the old monarchy.
They waged a campaign of reactionary terror against the left and workers’ movement. It culminated in the crushing of a rising in Berlin in January 1919 organised by the Sparticists and the murder of Liebknecht and Luxemburg.
Up until 1923 there were chances for revolutionary struggles to break through. And despite its defeat, the November Revolution showed the potential for the working class to fight for its own liberation—and to stop war.
In her last written words Luxemburg said, “The leadership has failed. Even so the leadership must be recreated from the masses and out of the masses. The masses are the decisive element, the rock on which the final victory is built.
“Tomorrow the revolution will already raise itself with a rattle and announce with fanfare to your terror: I was, I am, I shall be.”
How the biggest workers’ party helped restore order
Spontaneous action by workers and soldiers drove the spread of the revolution in November 1918.
But the Social Democratic Party (SPD) played a decisive role in helping the ruling class to regain the upper hand.
Germany’s rulers had repressed the SPD. Yet faced with revolution, they saw no other option than to bring it back into the fold.
Gustav Stresemann, a leading bourgeois politician, said, “A government without the Social Democrats during the next two years seems quite impossible. Otherwise we shall stagger from general strike to general strike.”
The SPD was officially a Marxist party and called for socialism to replace capitalism. Founded in 1863, it had grown into the largest working class party in the world with over one million members.
But while its leaders talked of Marxism, they increasingly focused on winning reforms within capitalism rather than replacing it altogether.
Its leaders ended up seeking to defend the capitalist state and backed Kaiser Wilhelm II’s declaration of war in 1914.
The SPD still had a massive sway among the working class. It had been at the forefront of pushing for workers’ rights and its reformism fitted with the majority of working class people’s ideas and experiences.
Most workers can see it’s possible to win reforms, but view capitalism as the way of the world. And even when workers are part of revolutionary struggles, not all draw revolutionary conclusions about the need to smash the whole system.
The strength of the SPD meant that its reformism had a big impact during the revolution.
When mutiny broke out in Kiel, the government sent right wing SPD politician Gustav Noske to “prevent the rising spreading through the fleet”. The leaders of the sailors’ council suggested he take over its chairmanship.
This put Noske into a position to try to contain the revolution.
The SPD used a similar method after the fall of the monarchy in November. It invited the Independent SPD, made up of revolutionaries and left reformists, to join a “revolutionary government”.
Liebknecht saw through its rhetoric.
The SPD tried to organise an assembly of workers’ and soldiers’ councils, but the SPD machine moved to pack the meeting and marginalise revolutionaries.
There were opportunities for the revolutionary left.
When the Communist Party (KPD) was formed in December 1918, it could draw on the support of tens of thousands of workers who looked to revolutionary change.
But the KPD was founded late and lacked the experiences of struggle. Many workers were unsure of who to put their trust in—and were pulled by reformist ideas.
KPD leaders such as Luxemburg had trouble winning the large numbers of newly radicalised workers to the need for revolution.