In this new episode, the lights start to go out for the German monarchy as "the spark flies into the powder keg" of the revolution. Soldiers, sailors, and workers demand an end to the slaughter and the disempowerment of the old elites, who refuse to budge.
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Hello everyone, and welcome to the Iron Dice. Its Dan here and this is the second episode in our series on the struggle for power in Weimar Germany. If you haven't listened to Part 1, I suggest you listen to that first, although it's not a necessity to understand what is going on in this episode. If you just want to jump in now, that should work fine, and without any further ado, I give you part two of "The Fight for the Republic"
The date is March eleventh, 1919. Something horrific is about to happen in the streets of Berlin. A couple of hundred men are walking towards the city center, one among them a young man named Hugo Levin. As the people walking among him, he and his brother joined a division of the people's Navy, a small paramilitary group formed in the Weimar Republic's early months. By now, their services are no longer needed, and they have been told that they will receive their discharge papers and one last paycheck at the address Französiche Straße or French Street 32 in Berlin.
It's safe to assume that a fair amount of these men are fairly happy; they don't have to risk their life anymore; they just want their last paycheck and hed home to their families.
Sadly, none of these roughly 150 to 200 men realize that they are walking straight into a trap. When they reach the address they were told to go to, there are soldiers all around. Heavily armed, ready for combat. Not unusual these days. It's a turbulent time in the capital. They are being led into an inner courtyard, and suddenly, the soldiers around start arresting them. Group after group arrives, all of them get detained at gunpoint and dragged into the building. They aren't being told why, if they broke the law, or what's happening. Some of them might have an idea of what is about to happen because the soldiers arresting them arent part of the people's Navy or anything like that. These are troops loyal to the government. Hugo also doesn't know what is happening, even as an officer starts observing the captives and picks out a couple of prisoners seemingly at random. He and his brother are chosen as well, and after the officer picks the last person, they are driven back into the courtyard. Some of the thirty men start screaming that they are innocent while the soldiers start hitting them with rifle buds pushing them forward.
Back outside, they are shoved into one of the corners of the courtyard, and as Hugo looks across the yard, he sees a couple of the soldiers talking. Making gestures. Then it dawns on him what the soldiers are doing. They are setting up an execution squad.
At this point, Hugo begins to scream, as do the rest of the men. Begging for mercy, saying they haven't done anything. But it's of no use. A machine gun gets placed before them, and the soldiers fire on the crowd. Hugo gets hit in the arm, falls over, and loses consciousness for a short time. When he wakes up, he hears nothing but some of the soldiers talking to one another and decides to play dead, hoping they won't notice. Suddenly he hears one of the soldiers shout, "Hey! That one is still alive!" followed by a pistol shot. "That one too," another shot. "The second one too!" and a third shot. Still, he does not move an inch. He just lies face down, in the blood of his former comrades, including his brother, trying to suppress the pain from his wound. He does this for what feels like hours to him until he hears the officer who picked him and the 29 others to be executed enters the courtyard, and by this point, Hugo can't take it anymore. The pain is just too much, so he gets up, looks the officer straight in the eyes, and falls to his knees, begging for his life. The officer looks at him and, without saying a word, turns around and leaves. Hugo Levin will be the only survivor of the massacre in Berlin on March eleventh, 1919.
Historian Mark Jones describes this event at the beginning of his book called "Founding Weimar," and he primarily focuses on political violence. Because the amount of violence in the early Weimar years is enormous. And Mark Jones asks the question of how actions like this execution became acceptable. It became acceptable to the broader public and even previously non-violent pacifist parties like the German Social Democrats. We talked a bit about them in the last episode, and you might've wondered, "Dan, why do you talk about the SPD so much and not the other parties." We'll talk about the other parties too, but it's hard to understate the importance of the social democratic party in this particular moment in German history. Around 1900 the German Social Democrats are the biggest Marxist political party in all of Europe. They are huge. All over Europe, socialists make their way to Germany to join this movement, and they are absolutely the vanguard of advancing worker's rights and collective bargaining.
One of the people who flock to the party before the first world war is a young woman called Rosa Luxemburg. She is very smart, well-spoken, and after going to Switzerland to get a Ph.D., which women couldn't do in Germany at the time, she joins the Social Democrats. Pretty much immediately, she starts tapping right into the divide that is brewing inside the party. Because while the party is Marxist in theory, there is a fight over how to achieve their goals. Rosa Luxemburg is part of the party's revolutionary wing that argues for overthrowing the old system and completely restructuring society. Opposite of them are the moderates who favor incrementalism, working within the system and achieving their goals sort of piece by piece.
The first time this divide comes to blow is when the first world war breaks out. Now the social democrats don't have that much to say on whether Germany goes to war or not, but they have to approve the loans Germany needs for the war.
This puts them into a put up or shut up type of situation where they have to decide, are we going to support the government in this endeavor or not. The reasoning of the revolutionary wing of the party is pretty simple. This is a war between several imperialist nations, and the only one paying the price is going to be the proletariat, the working class. As a party that proclaims to speak for the workers, we should oppose Germany taking part in the war. That's basically what they are saying.
They have serious support early on and hold numerous anti-war rallies all over the country until something happens that pulls out the rug from under them. That is the mobilization of Russia.
This completely changes the dynamic because to Marx and the German left in general, Russia was seen as this bulwark of reaction. They despise the Czar and everything he stands for.
The German government can now frame this as a defensive war that Germany is forced into and calls for a "Burgfrieden" or castle peace. Basically a temporary truce inside the country where everyone agrees; we are in this together. Until the war is over, we won't criticize the government, sabotage the war effort, and so on. Most people are on board with this; they see it as their patriotic duty, including the vast majority of unions in the country who agree to not go on strike as long as the war is going on. So it comes down to the social democrats, and they are really facing a dilemma now because, on the one side, they claim to be internationalists and anti-imperialists. On the other side, Russia winning would undoubtedly be a major setback to their long terms goals. They also hope that this national solidarity could eliminate some obstacles to social and political equality in the country. Above all, they are motivated by their self-preservation, though. Them not voting for the loans would certainly break up the party; they might get persecuted by the government and create a massive division in the country.
So on August 3ed 1914, the SPD votes for the approval of the loans. Here is how historian Heinrich August Winkler talks about the party leader at the time (a guy called Haase) trying to frame this as a compromise between the moderates and more radical members of the party a day after the vote:
"Haase first attacked the imperialist policy of the arms race,
which the SPD had 'fought with all its powers, but ultimately in
vain'. He then spoke of the 'iron fact of war' confronting all and of
the 'looming horrors of enemy invasion.' He emphasized that the
'victory of Russian despotism' would place the German people and
their future freedom in great danger, if not bring about their utter
destruction; 'in harmony with the International,' he invoked the
right of every people to national independence and self-defense. He
condemned all wars of conquest, demanding 'that, once the goal of
security has been achieved, and the adversary is prepared for peace,
an end be made of war through a peace that permits of friendship
with the neighbouring peoples.' The two most significant sentences
of the speech were the following: 'We shall put into practice what
we have always preached: in the hour of danger, we will not leave
our own Fatherland in the lurch ... Guided by these principles, we
herewith approve the desired war credits.'
Of course, this self-defense narrative takes a significant blow when the German Empire invades Belgium, which had been neutral; on the same day, Haase gives this speech. And as more and more of the government's war goals like annexing colonies etc., leak to the public, the resistance to the party truce becomes bigger and bigger. Eventually, the party leadership can't ignore it anymore and does their best to repress these sentiments or just kick people out of the party. And here is where it gets exciting and why I'm even talking about this inner-party struggle going on. Ultimately the anti-war wing of the party separates from the rest of the party. And two people are critical in this. One is Rosa Luxemburg; another is a man called Karl Liebknecht. He has black curly hair, a bushy black mustache, and wears Pince-nez glasses, which are glasses that just sit on the bridge of your nose that make him look like an owl, a little bit. He and Rosa found what would later be known as the Spartacus League, which tries to organize opposition to the war while it's going on and more broadly push for a workers revolution. Karl and Rosa would both spend time in prison for this during the war and later join a broader group of social democrats who split off from the main party to form their own revolutionary, anti-war party called the "Independent Social Democrats."
We're just going to call em the independents because that's shorter. Now jumping back into where we left off in the last episode, the Spartacists and independent believe their hour has come. Its late October 1918.
More and more people in the German government realize that they can't win the war anymore, so they ask US President Woodrow Wilson for an armistice. They talk to him specifically because he has been very vocal about this idea of signing a peace with honor and that sort of stuff up until this point. At first, he shoots them down, tells them they need to democratize, which they do. Another reason why the militarists and others push for a civilian government to take the reigns is that they want to calm the country's mood a bit.
More and more people flock to the independents as the situation in Germany gets worse and worse. Liebknecht and others frequently hold speeches in which they decry Germany's quote "mass immiseration." The working class, especially those working in the factories, have to do more and more hours for less pay than four years ago. Everyone who has their finger on the country's pulse knows that this can't go on forever. It's going to come to blows sooner or later, and on October twenty-eighth, the fuse is lit by a command in the German Navy. In the months leading up to this moment, more and more higher-ups in the Navy have been getting increasingly frustrated because they believe to be underutilized. Except for the u-bootes, most major German ships are just sitting in the harbor doing nothing for the last two years. There is no point sending them to fight against the British fleet because even if they won a battle or two, it wouldn't change anything since Germany can't replace ships as fast as Britain can. And this sense of not being able to do anything really has been chewing on the egos of the Admirals in charge, and of course, they all have massive egos. The build-up of the imperial Navy really had been a project that the Kaiser himself had a major interest in, and the Navy understands itself as the elite or secret weapon of the German Armed Forces. That said, the Navy not being deployed made it a bit of a joke to people. A popular saying at the time that, of course, said mockingly is, "Dearest, fatherland doesn't need to worry, the navy is sleeping in the harbor." In German, it rhymes, though.
What pushes the admiralty over the edge is Germany entering negotiations for an Armistice with the US. One might guess these guys would be happy about that, but no, they are outraged. For them, this means the war might end without a chance to earn some glory. Earn some fame. What makes it even worse is that they know, if Germany wants a peace deal, it probably has to hand over their ships. Especially Britain doesn't want any country even trying to rival their naval supremacy, so a defeated Germany would most likely not be allowed to have a high seas fleet. And to have this war come to an end without a chance to shine AND see these massive ships that they know inside out be scrapped by the enemy? They would rather die than see that happen. Damn it all to hell is their attitude in late October 1918.
So, they hatch a secret plan. A plan that would give them their glorious battle against the British fleet. It consists of a giant maneuver involving the entire German high-seas fleet sailing into the British channel and launching a couple of attacks to lure out the British fleet, which sits in the upper north sea.
When the British try to intercept the German fleet on the way back, they're going to be attacked by ubootes lying in wait, and the final confrontation is supposed to happen before the coast of the Netherlands.
The people setting up this battle are fully aware that this will probably lead to the destruction of most of the fleet, and they don't care. In fact, that is partially the point, right? Because they'd rather see those ships on the bottom of the ocean than hand them over to the British.
This is how one German officer phrases it in a letter at the time:
"It goes without saying that the sheer thought of the fleet's destruction, without ever having gone into battle, fills us with the shock of shame. The mission of going down with honour is still worthwhile, for we would certainly inflict some serious wounds on England.'
They also do not care that this battle would probably cost the lives of tens of thousands of sailors. That is a bonus to them actually because they don't trust their crews anymore. A majority of these sailors are supposedly infested with Bolshevist ideas anyway, and with this battle, you could make a clean sweep, so to speak.
Now, the Navy higher-ups cant do this on their own; they need the sailors to man the ships. And since your average guy working on one of the vessels might not be interested in a suicide mission to save the German Navy's honor, they are kept in the dark about this plan. They're supposed to receive some orders that obscure the true nature of what is happening, and by the time they might realize it, it will be too late.
The plan is set into motion in late October, just as the government enacts reforms to appease the allies. The ships are prepared and repositioned accordingly. The chimneys on the boats get a new paint job. Lots of ammunition is stored. The sailors aboard sense that something big is about to happen, and the admiralty of Germany's Imperial Navy is preparing for their fight to the death.
Unfortunately for them, some of the officers on one of the ships make a big mistake. Imagine you are one of the people in on this plan, what would be on the top of your list before sailing off? It would probably be saying goodbye to your loved ones because you're never going to see them again. That's exactly what some of them do. They write fare-well letters, or you might also call them suicide notes. And because of this and a couple of other leaks, rumors quickly start making the rounds.
As you can imagine, the sailors are not very enthusiastic about the prospect of dying in a transparently pointless battle. Especially since they are aware of the negotiations happening between Germany and the US by now. Even if they'd survive this giant battle, it would undoubtedly torpedo any chance for a truce soon. But then, it is just a rumor at this point, so there is no open rebellion yet. That changes on the evening before the fleet is supposed to depart in the harbor of Wilhelmshaven. The flagships' captains are waiting on their orders for the next day as sailors on several ships refuse to obey orders. They are ordered to weigh anchor, and they say no. The stokers who take care of the fires underdeck put them out the flames. Sailors sabotage what they can and tell their superiors that they don't want any part in this and won't comply. Commanding officers try to calm them down, telling them they aren't sailing into the English channel, there is nothing to worry about. Basically just lying to get a grip on the situation.
The most fitting analogy I could find for the dynamic that is about to unfold is a giant setup of dominos. One of those where you tip the first piece and that chain reaction leads to other branches falling over and so on. Because as other sailors hear of their comrades refusing orders, they do the same. It spreads from ship to ship to ship very quickly. And on some of them, the officers can keep control of the crew and prevent this sentiment from spilling over. On others, they are not as lucky.
Two of these are the SMS Helgoland and SMS Thüringen. Both are dreadnought battleships—roughly 170 meters or 550 feet long and heavily armed. Some historians point out that the Imperial Navy was a place in the military where the ground was particularly fertile for disobedience at some point or another. Because in close quarters where soldiers and officers live right next to one another, inequality is just easier to see. These sailors weren't blind to what food their officers got and how they slept. And to add insult to injury, many of the higher-ups on the battleships are relatively young and inexperienced because the more capable ones are taking part in the uboot campaign.
On the night of October twenty-ninth, the officers aboard the SMS Helgoland and SMS Thürigen cannot regain control of the crew. And what started as the refusal to weigh the anchor quickly spirals into an open mutiny. The officers aboard contact the high sees fleet commanders and ask them what to do, and they order to put anyone disobeying orders under arrest.
This puts the revolting crew into an all or nothing situation, or at least that's what they feel like. They remember very well what kind of punishment mutineers got prior to this. Some got years-long prison sentences, others were transferred to work on minesweepers, which was very dangerous, and a few even were shot.
Instead of backing down, more and more of the crew join in the mutiny until they take over both ships and place their officers under arrest. It is important to note here that there is no concrete plan behind all of this; these guys just don't want to die in the last few days of the conflict.
When the Navy higher-ups hear of the officers' inability to get the situation under control, they order two torpedo-boats to get into position. In other Navys, they call this type of ship a torpedo boat destroyer. They're fast, maneuverable, and deadly at short range. And not only are they told to get into position but to take aim at the two ships that the sailors are on. While a torpedo boat is much smaller than the battleships, a well-aimed torpedo at this range can sink one of these in minutes. The sailors, as they see the torpedo-boats take aim at them, decide not to back down. And here is where we get into a real naval Mexican stand-off because the sailors feel like they don't have much to lose, and the admiralty would rather sink their own battleships than see them in the hands of mutineers.
As the torpedo-boats get ready to fire, the sailors turn their twelve 30cm or twelve-inch guns back at them. These guns are designed to pierce ship armor at high range. The shells they use weigh over 400 kilograms or nine-hundred points, and they're able to shoot them over 40 kilometers or 45.000 yards. At this range, there probably would be much left if they decide to fire.
This level of disobedience is unprecedented in the German Imperial Navy and certainly affects the sailors merely watching this happen without actually taking part themselves. In the end, though, both sides shy away
from pushing the button, and some 600 sailors are arrested, which is almost a quarter of the entire crew. Despite that, they at least temporarily reached their goal, which was stopping the fleet from taking part in a suicide mission. The admiralty, deciding on what to do with all the sailors who took part in this land on being lenient. They don't want to make the situation worse than it already is. Sure, the heads of the mutiny have to be brought before a military court, but those who just tagged along are not to be punished. Let them "blow off some steam" in a dingy bar or something, and that will calm them down a bit, is what the admiralty is thinking. The fleet is also split up sailing into different harbors, and one of them is the city of Kiel. This city is the central Naval hub in Germany and very much shaped by the Imperial Navy. It is full of shipyards, munitions factories, and roughly fifty thousand soldiers are stationed there. Some officers warn that it isn't a good idea to let the sailors have their shore leave in Kiel, considering the social democrats and independents are very powerful there. It's also home to a ton of unions. Their warnings go unheard, and looking back now, the Navy higher-ups letting the sailors have their leave in Kiel seems like the worst possible option.
A leading figure in the social democrats, Philipp Scheideman, who we mentioned in the previous episode, would later say Kiel was where the spark flew into the powder keg.
On November first, roughly 250 sailors leave their ships, and instead of going into a bar, they head straight for the trade union headquarters to meet with members of the social democrats and independents. Together they try to figure out a way to prevent this suicide mission that the higher-ups are longing for. They also want to free their comrades before they get put on trial for sedition. A few possibilities are discussed, and they agree to meet again tomorrow. The next day, November second, twice as many sailors show up, so they decide to move the meeting into a large city square. And here is where what began as a mutiny against a suicide mission becomes overtly political. Various speakers demand an end to militarism and the disempowerment of the ruling class! At the end, one speaker announces an even bigger rally and instructs the crowd to tell everyone about the march they're planning for the next day. They also print leaflets asking for solidarity that read:
"Comrades, don't shoot at your brothers! Workers, demonstrate in masses, don't abandon the soldiers.'
The local authorities look at these events and really start to worry about containing what is going on. Because striking sailors is one thing, but what if the workers join in or even worse, the soldiers join in? Who is then left to prevent this from spilling over? The governor of the city, a guy called Admiral Souchon, realizes how serious this is and immediately calls Berlin to get some support and asks them to send someone over to channel this revolt into something less dangerous. The Kaiser, who we will check in on later, has left Berlin at this point but the government, consisting of the social democrats and the other parties, freak out when they hear of what is going on in Kiel. Now you might be wondering why they, in particular, might react this way because removing the old elites from power is what the government just did. Just a couple of days prior, the government stripped the Kaiser of most of his political power, and right this moment, they're already negotiating an armistice, so what is there to worry about?
Well, the mutiny in Kiel might not seem very revolutionary at the moment but can change on a dime. Imagine you have this environment in Kiel where soldiers, sailors, and workers are resentful of the authorities and just had it with the war. They want peace, no matter the cost. And now insert a Vladimir Lenin figure in there. A person who has a clear vision of what they want to happen and a good enough speaker to rally the people around his goals. Things can boil over rather quickly then. Especially because the reforms the government has just enacted arent a felt reality for the sailors yet. For them, it feels the same as before. And while the social democrats are on the left, they have no interest in a social revolution happening in the country after what they saw taking place in Russia. At first, the broader German left showed solidarity with the bolsheviks and their struggle against the Czar, but that came to a screeching halt when the bolsheviks dissolved the Russian Constituent Assembly and secured power for themselves. For them, the system of soviets or councils represents a higher form of democracy than an assembly of elected officials ever could basically. For the German Social Democrats, this action by the bolsheviks amounts to merely replacing one dictatorship with another, and as such, they become even more hostile to the idea of a social revolution. And they're not alone in seeing what is going on in Russia this critical because even the Spartacists are split on this. Rosa Luxemburg, who is far to the left from someone like Ebert or other leading social democrats, is among the most vocal in condemning the bolsheviks.
"The well-known dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in November 1917… represented a turning point in [Bolshevik] tactics… Lenin and his comrades were stormily demanding the calling of a Constituent Assembly up to the time of their October victory, and the policy of ragging out this matter on the part of the Kerensky government… was the basis of some of their most violent attacks upon it.
To be sure, every democratic institution has its limits and shortcomings, things which it doubtless shares with all other human institutions. But the remedy which Trotsky and Lenin have found, the elimination of democracy as such, is worse than the disease it is supposed to cure; for it stops up the very living source from which alone can come correction of all the innate shortcomings of social institutions. That source is the active, untrammelled, energetic political life of the broadest masses of the people."
To the social democrats, if you don't want to copy what happened in Russia, you only have the route of peaceful reform. And the only way to do that is through parliamentary democracy and class compromise, in Marxist terms. Apart from a social revolution happening, the current government is also scarred by a counter-revolution. You'd see this happening in countries like Finland or Hungary, where a revolution occurs, and then the following backlash plunges the country into violence and chaos. The current chancellor, Max von Baden, rather than ordering troops into the city, sends two politicians to Kiel. One of them is the SPD's Gustav Noske, a crucial figure later in this story. One characteristic that sets him apart from others in the party is that not only is he a reformist, if he even is that, he is also a hardcore anti-bolshevik. He is supposed to channel the anger and frustration of the sailors into a less dangerous direction. They travel up north on November third. The same day the sailors are holding another big rally with even more attendees, this time. Military authorities try to dissolve the crowd by signaling the city alarm on which usually every soldier or sailor is supposed to return to their post. This backfires quite badly because not many people follow this order and the alarm even has the opposite effect because more and more citizens of Kiel notice that something is going on in the city. As the word spreads, the crowd gets bigger, and now everything happens very fast. At 6 PM, roughly 6000 people have gathered at the city square. The sailors call for a march to one of the local prisons to free their comrades, and eventually, this giant mass of people makes their way through the city. On the way, the crowd passes a pub that officers used as an improvised prison for soldiers who didn't react to the city-wide alarm. The crowd demands their immediate release, and the officers say no. Another branch of dominos falls as the sailors and soldiers realize that there is no reason why they should care about what these officers want. There are only a few of them and thousands of us. They storm the pub, burst through the glass, seize every weapon they can get their hands-on, and free their detained comrades. After doing this successfully, the group continues to move towards the city center, and I think at this point, we can stop calling them sailors and start calling them what they are. Revolutionaries. More and more people are flocking to this crowd from all walks of life, women, men, workers, soldiers, everyone. The movement has a massive pull at this point. And they're all shouting and singing the international on their way to the prison. That said, they also don't lose sight of who their enemies are because another popular song goes, "Lights out, Knives out, Punch em until the scraps fly."
And as the march turns into the street leading up to their destination, their standing face to face with that enemy. They're facing a hastily put together roadblock with forty to fifty armed soldiers standing behind it. The crowd does not stop, and as they get closer and closer, the lieutenant commanding the unit screams at them that he has orders to shoot if necessary. The unit he is commanding is made up of young inexperienced soldiers who we're probably very nervous. They get the order to point their rifles at the crowd, and now we don't know what exactly happened. Maybe the lieutenant gave the order to fire right away, or perhaps the group wouldn't stop. We do know, though, that what is about to happen will have the effect of someone pouring gasoline into a fire.
The lieutenant orders to shoot, and at first, the soldiers only fire in the air. Trying to scare the protestors off. But again, these guys are probably shaking in their boots, so one-shot hits a protestor. The crowd scatters a bit, but a few also fire back. So it gets very chaotic very fast. The lieutenant gets struck down from behind, and upon getting up, he screams at his men to fire straight into the crowd. Several people are hit and drop dead on the spot. The soldiers firing the shots who were supposed to get a grip on the situation lose their cool and flee. Just run away, panicked about what is happening. Reinforcements are deployed, and with the help of the local firefighters, the crowd gets dispersed. This encounter leaves 9 people dead and 29 wounded.
When the city governor Souchon hears of this, he is not thrilled but at least thinks his men were able to maintain order and score a victory over the revolutionaries. He couldn't be more wrong. Because this same night, on several ships lying in the harbor, commanding officers wake up to someone pointing a rifle at their face. The sailors take over.
One after the other, you can witness the flags on these big battleships get pulled down and replaced with red ones. Things start to get heated everywhere in the city as workers go on strike; some get arrested, which adds even more fuel to the flame. And now the dam is broken. As revolutionaries storm multiple barracks and get their hands on a bunch of guns; they quickly become an equal match for the soldiers still loyal to the authorities. They also set up a soldiers council, which is an idea that goes back to the failed Russian revolution of 1905. Basically, the soldiers or workers elect one or multiple representatives directly who then speak on their behalf. For the independents and the Spartacists, these councils are a form of pure democracy. It's as close as you can get to figure out the will of the people. The more moderate social democrats who, at this stage, support the councils sprawling up during the revolution are more skeptical. To them, these are harbingers of bolshevism and chaos. Be that as it may, the revolutionaries set up this council and formulate their political demands. These will be called the Kieler fourteen points, and, looking at them, we can see that at this stage, this really wasn't a communist revolution at all. At the top of the list is the abdication of house Hohenzollern, which is the dynasty the Kaiser belongs to. Also, free speech, press freedom. Fair treatment by superiors and a guarantee that the imperial fleet won't sail into battle. Overall, these points are mainly informed by the immediate concerns of the sailors and soldiers. More radical ideas certainly are present, but they don't make it onto the official list. That doesn't necessarily mean that the agenda cant change, and the man who is supposed to prevent that from happening arrives on November fourth. That is the just mentioned Gustav Noske, who holds a speech in front of a massive crowd upon arriving at the town square. Now, the revolutionaries think they have a powerful ally in this guy. He could help them carry the revolution to the heart of the republic, Berlin. But that's not what Noske wants. If he had his way, this all would stop immediately. The night before he arrives, governor Souchon sees no other way than negotiating with the council to buy some time. And here Souchon tries to scare the council into backing down by suggesting that he could easily call in troops from outside the city and end this whole thing in a giant bloodbath.
Unfortunate for him, the council calls his bluff. They respond that if you call in any outside troops to stomp us out, we will use our battleships to defend ourselves. Taking strategic points in the city under fire. But even if they didn't have these battleships, by now, the outside troops would be facing 40.000 heavily armed men. There is a great anecdote of where Souchon is talking to the council members and every time a unit defects to the revolutionaries, a messenger comes into the room informing the governor. Up until the point where he gets notified that the unit stationed in the basement of the building they are in has switched sides. Here is how historian Robert Gerwarth captures this moment:
"As the journalist Bernhard Rausch observed on November fifth, the rebellious sailors in Kiel held all the cards. They now had some 40,000 heavily armed men with whom to defend the city, along with naval artillery as their strongest weapon. As Rausch noted, the city had suddenly entered 'an entirely transformed world. Above the German fleet, on top of the Kiel town hall, and on the castle tower flew the red flag of the revolution."
On November fifth, the revolution enters the next phase as Kiel's workers organize a general strike. Conservative forces in the country, at least those who realize what is going, completely freak out at these developments. They want to stop this at all cost. The military in Berlin even talks about walling off the entire city and shelling it. It is too late for any of that, though. Even for Noske. After arriving in Kiel, he successfully installs himself at the top of the movement, gets elected head of the soldiers' council, and meets with Souchon the same night. He tells him not to call in more troops because that would lead to a lot of bloodshed, which then might cause a strike on a national level. Which, of course, Noske doesn't want because that would hurt Germanys' position in the negotiations with the allies going on right now. Still, despite what Noske wants to see happen, even he can't contain this anymore, and by now, more and more people in the country realize what has just kicked into motion. The Kaiser's brother, who happens to be in Kiel, flees the city on the same night, and now the revolution really ignites. What happens in Kiel occurs in a bunch of cities. People refusing to work and demanding peace. Not just protesting for it but demanding it by threatening to paralyze the entire country. They want this old archaic system that has failed them to die. And if they have to be the ones who deal the final stroke, so be it. On November eighth so mere three days later, chancellor Max von Baden requests a report that summarizes how far the revolution has spread, and it reads:
5 pm: Halle and Leipzig red.
Evening: Düsseldorf, Haltern, Osnabrück, Lüneburg red; Magdeburg,
Stuttgart, Oldenburg, Braunschweig, Cologne red.
City after city falls to the revolutionaries. Soldiers or workers councils get established, and what you also see in these three days is a rapid implosion of the monarchy. Because Germany doesn't just have a Kaiser but a bunch of regional monarchs also. The first to fall is the Wittelsbach dynasty in Bavaria. King Ludwig the third flees Munich, and a member of the independents called Kurt Eisner, declares all of Bavaria a "free republic" the same day. Things follow a similar pattern countrywide, but it is not an organized effort compared to the bolshevik revolution. The main motivation for the people taking part in this is ending the war and more political freedoms. So rather than a clear trajectory of the revolutionaries moving from city to city, it is mostly spontaneous. Soldiers and workers hear of what is going on and decide to do the same. Strike, elect a council, and join in demanding what the movement wants. And in this, they oust monarch after monarch who have ruled these places for longer than Germany has existed as a state. Much longer even. The Wittelsbach dynasty in Bavaria had ruled for over a thousand years and now is swept away virtually overnight. It is absolutely incredible.
What is special about the German revolution is that all of this happens without a lot of bloodshed. Not many soldiers want to put up a fight for their monarch; also, the speed at which this happens is a factor. Sometimes they don't even have time to coordinate because the city is already in the revolutionaries' hands. It is also the case that the revolutionaries themselves are scared of things spiraling out of control. Besides holding up signs that say stuff like "Bread and Peace" or "Brothers, don't shoot!" they also have signs reading "Stay calm!". "Maintain order."
Because the revolutionaries also do not want a civil war. Their motivation primarily is peace and not a dictatorship of the proletariat. Rather than attributing the peacefulness of the revolution to the fact that the old system doesn't have many defenders anymore, several contemporaries point to the German character as the reason.
Thomas Mann, the famous novelist, for instance, writes this in his diary:
"The German Revolution is a very German one, even if it is a proper revolution. No French savagery, no Russian Communist excesses."
Another instance that historians sometimes pick to show this kind of sentiment is from November sixth. Revolutionaries take a hotel and go from door to door checking who is staying there. It just happens so that a social democratic politician named Herman Müller, who will later become chancellor, is also there. After hearing heavy footsteps in the hotel corridor and someone knocking, he opens the door. In front of him are two sailors wearing red armbands. Obviously revolutionaries, so he hands them his passport, and after they inspect it, they say something along the lines of "Sir, your passport is expired since March seventeenth this year ." They hand it back to him, smile, salute, and continue with checking the other rooms. Müller, completely flabbergasted, would later write:"
Is it even imaginable that in another country, the night after the start of a revolution, a revolutionary would be concerned about a passport renewal?'
Despite the ,let's say, orderliness of the revolution and the fact that it is not akin to the bolshevik revolution; the right-wing in the country is frothing at the mouth at this. They fear not only for their own lives and property, but they also have an emotional attachment to the monarchy. And, of course, they detest anything mildly left of center. Oswald Spengler, who will become hugely influential in the German far-right and remains so to this day, is one of those people. He writes on November seventh:
I experienced the disgusting scenes first hand ... and almost choked with disgust ... I now see clearly that the German revolution has taken
a typical course: a gradual destruction of the existing order, collapse, wild
radicalism ... We need punishment ... until the time has come, as in 1813 and 1870, for that small group of people to act as leaders: Prussian noblemen and Prussian officials, the thousands of our technicians, academics, artisans, workers with Prussian instincts ... And then blood has to flow, the more the better.
So here you can see the ideological underpinnings of this ugly vengeful right-wing underbelly of the Weimar Republic forming. They fear for the worst at this point. One conservative politician writes than he
"could not find words to express my sorrow over the events of November 1918; to describe how shattered I was. I felt the world collapsing, burying under its rubble all that I had lived for and all that my parents had taught me to cherish since I was a child."
Another monarchist writes that November ninth was the
"most wretched day of my life! What has become of the Kaiser and the Reich? From the outside, we face mutilation [. . . and] a sort of debt servitude; internally we face . . . civil war, starvation, chaos."
Many industrialists also feel the same way. The head of one of the world's largest shipping companies is so scarred by November ninth's events and so desperate that he just outright kills himself.
Now, you might wonder, what exactly happens on November Ninth. Well, while the revolution is brewing and eventually breaking out, the political intrigue we talked a lot about in the last episode continues. In Berlin, the current chancellor Prince Max von Baden, starts to work on getting the Kaiser to abdicate even before the revolution breaks out. As early as mid to late October, von Baden talks about this with other people he deems trustworthy. At the moment, the most significant point on his agenda is getting an armistice with the allies. His government has been in contact with US President Woodrow Wilson, and in late October, he confirms what Max von Baden is already suspecting. There will not be a truce while Kaiser Wilhelm the second sits on the German throne. What is interesting here is that Wilson doesn't explicitly demand there to be no Monarch. And one of the reasons for that is because Wilson is also looking to the east of Germany at the Soviet Union. For him, it's preferable to allow some of the old structures to remain in place if that means having an anti-communist Germany in the end. You might expect the Kaiser to somehow take advantage of that and allow his grandson to take the throne, for instance. At least you save your dynasty that way. The problem is that Kaiser Wilhelm is not good at making decisions requiring you to keep a cool head. He is very insecure and very erratic. Christopher Clark summarizes him like this in his book Kaiser Wilhelm the Second: A Life in Power. Quote
"He remains, by my reading, a man of intelligence but of poor judgement, of tactless outbursts and short-lived enthusiasms, a fearful, panic-prone figure who often acted on impulse out of a sense of weakness and threat."
He is a fascinating figure, and when you read about him, he is usually portrayed in one of two ways. Either he is a warmongering power-hungry monster. A proto-Hitler of sorts. Or he is a weakling who is too cowardly or incompetent to be a real leader. When I read about him, I couldn't help but pity him a bit. As many historians point out, his personality is, to an extent, a result of his upbringing. Because this guy, when he was a child, was (there is really no other way to say this) tortured over years.
He receives an injury of his arm at birth, and days later, they realize it's partially paralyzed and will likely remain so. So he grows up disabled, and his family tries all kinds of stuff to fix this. Electroshocks is one of the tools they use for over ten years. When he is six months old, they start to fixate his healthy arm for one hour every day, forcing him to use his weak arm at the expense of great pain. One hour each day, he has to put on a device that is supposed to stretch his neck out while deploying electroshocks. These attempts to cure him of his disability go as far as making young Wilhelm stick his weak arm into a freshly killed animal because the animal's warmth is supposed to help muscle development.
Throughout all of this, his mother is incredibly callous towards him. She leaves his upbringing to a guy who contributes to the abuse by always demanding that Wilhelm perform physical tasks, which he can't. He has a disability. But back then, that was just not something that was appropriate for a prince.
All of this forms the basis for Wilhelm's massive insecurity that guides a lot of his behavior. It might also be the reason he decides to leave Berlin on October 29th. More and more powerful people in Berlin talk about how the Kaiser abdicating is inevitable, and this atmosphere of intrigue and maneuvering is what Wilhelm is trying to escape. He travels to the Headquarter of the German Armed Forces, which is in Spa, Belgium. Technically the Kaiser is the head of the military, so it makes sense that this is where he feels safe. In fact, when he arrives there, he says that the von Baden government is working on getting rid of him, which he can only fight back against in midst his army. And remember, these guys are cousins. And Max von Baden only became chancellor because he promised Wilhelm that he would maintain his regency, no matter the cost. At this point, that is not realistically possible, though. So with the Kaiser out of Berlin, the von Baden government prepares everything for the moment the Kaiser abdicates. Von Baden can even get the social democrats to agree to keep the monarchy if they switch out the Kaiser.
At first glance, that might sound a little confusing because the social democrats are republicans at heart, but here is the thing. They feel like they already got a lot of what they wanted. The monarch's position is stripped of most of its powers by the government's reforms in late October. The party has taken the kingmaker's position, and several leading social democrats like Ebert are okay with the system as it stands right now. The people who are in favor of this pragmatism see themselves as "Vernunftsmonarchisten". Reasonable monarchists is the translation. To them, the existence of a Monarch in this new government system isn't inherently a problem, rather who is in that position. But, all these plans, including the armistice they're trying to get, hinge on Wilhelm the second abdicating. Von Baden, understandably doesn't want to ask the Kaiser directly. That would probably be a very awkward conversation if at first, you promise to protect him and two weeks later ask the Kaiser to get out. So von Baden sends his interior minister to, you know, not openly request Wilhelm to abdicate because that would probably backfire. Instead, the minister is supposed to politely list the benefits hoping that Wilhelm feels like he has a choice and makes the decision on his own.
This attempt of von Baden ends in a complete disaster because Wilhelm sees right through this. He starts screaming at the minister that came to talk to him—damning the government, especially his cousin Max who, according to Wilhelm, revealed himself to be a scoundrel. So this maneuver ends up being a boomerang, and when Max von Baden learns that the Hohenzollern dynasty has now officially broken with him, he suffers a severe mental breakdown. There was a lot of pressure on him anyway, and this is the straw that breaks the camel's back. He collapses on the spot. Not responding to anything. It gets so bad that a doctor puts him into a mild coma with increasing doses of sedatives. When he wakes up a day later, he immediately starts crying and screaming, "I should just put a bullet in my head" he shouts before his doctor puts him to sleep again. This repeats itself a couple of times with Max waking up and just screaming, crying. He really is not to be envied because remember; the allies keep pushing back the German forces while the Kaiser keeps refusing to abdicate. Max suffers this breakdown in early November, so right when the revolution breaks out, to make matters worse. By the time he can function again, at least somewhat, it's November seventh, and the revolution has already spread across the country. One comparison I read while researching for this episode was the revolution as an oil spill. That is just engulfing the entire country until Berlin is just this tiny isolated island. The Kaiser, upon hearing about the revolution is sweeping across the country, shows himself completely unimpressed. And here we see it again, this blockheadesness. This inability to think straight. Because instead of attempting to save his dynasty by giving up the throne, he threatens to quote:
"write my answer [to them] on the pavement with machine guns. Even if I need to shoot my own castle into pieces, there must be order . . . I have no intention to leave my throne just because of a few hundred Jews and a thousand workers.
Just in case you're wondering:" Woah, where does this jews thing come from". Antisemitism is the norm at this point, especially among the conservatives. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who we talked about earlier, were also the targets of antisemitic attacks from inside the social democrats even. Jews seducing the workers into a revolution is a prevalent conspiracy theory, and both Karl and Rosa happened to be Jewish and anti-war. They're also not at the heart of this revolt; they are not in Kiel or anywhere close. Karl Liebknecht recently got out of prison and coordinates with people inside Berlin, and Rosa is still in jail for her anti-war activities.
So the Kaiser remains steadfast in his decision, and in the early morning hours of November seventh, so when von Baden is starting to recover a little bit from his breakdown, the social democrats deliver an ultimatum.
If the Kaiser doesn't abdicate until noon the next day, they will leave the government and officially coordinate with the revolution. This leaves von Baden no choice but to call the Kaiser and tell him what's what directly. He tells him straight, the only way civil war can be prevented is if you give up the throne. There is a good chance the monarchy will survive, and if you don't want to do it, can you at least remove me from my position as chancellor because there is nothing I can do anymore if that's your decision.
The Kaiser denies both requests and tells him that he pushed for an armistice with the allies, so he has to be the one to sign it. On top of that, he openly threatens him that if quote "You people in Berlin don't come to your senses (...) I will march down with the army and shoot the city to pieces if I have to!"
You might think these are merely empty words of a man hurt in his ego, but they are not. And here is where we finally reach the fateful day of November ninth. The Kaiser is now the last German monarch. All the other smaller ones are gone. In Spa, he holds a meeting to ask his two military commanders if it is within the realm of possibilities to turn around the army and march on Berlin to stomp out this coup against him. One of these two is Paul von Hindenburg, who is slavishly loyal to Wilhelm the second and will later call November ninth the worst day of his life. The other is a man named Groener, who is Ludendorff's successor and number 2 in the high command. He sees everything a bit more clearly and knows this scenario is delusional.
But you know, Wilhelm is still the Kaiser, so the high command orders several high ranking officers to come to Spa and briefs them about the situation. Unrest has broken out in the country, and revolutionaries have seized several essential railway junctions, threatening to cut off the supply to the front. The officers are stunned at this. They can't even believe what they're hearing because they got their last newspaper two weeks ago. And now, suddenly, the entire country is engulfed in a revolution. As the latest developments are broken to the officers, Hindenburg shows up and he looks like a husk. Pale and red eyes as if he had just been crying. He is not having a good time witnessing the downfall of the monarchy. After the briefing, the officers are called into a separate room one after the other and they're asked two questions.
First, how do the troops see the Kaiser? Can he lead them into Germany to recapture the homeland, and, secondly, how do the troops stand on bolshevism?
Here is how a colonel summarizes the answers of these officers:
"In general, the participants stated that the troops had nothing against their Kaiser, that they were actually indifferent toward him, that they had only one desire, namely to go home as soon as possible, to peace and order. . . . The troops are totally exhausted and fought out, they want to return to their homeland and want nothing but peace there; only if their own hearth and home, wives and children were threatened by the Bolsheviks would the men at the front take up arms against their compatriots at home.
But let us be honest; even if that wasn't the case, the prospect of turning the still fighting army around and perform a foot march on Berlin is preposterous. Completely detached from reality, but the Kaiser doesn't want to see it.
Hindenburg and Groener now have the ungrateful task of somehow making the Kaiser understand that this is not an option. After they arrive at the Kaisers mansion, Groener is the one who tells it like it is. The revolution has conquered too much of the country, and the army isn't as reliable as it used to be. The Kaiser's entourage is furious at Groener for saying this, and Wilhelm himself, again, just doesn't accept it. He is unwavering in wanting to lead the army back into Germany and enforcing his rule, and at this point, Groener just loses it.
He responds by almost shouting. The army will march home in good order under its generals, but not under the leadership of Your Majesty because the army doesn't stand behind you anymore!"
Years later, Groener would write in his memoir how surprised he was that he didn't instantly get shot for talking to the Kaiser this way.
And maybe he got lucky because as Wilhelm the second is still trying to process this, news reaches his mansion that the revolution has arrived in Berlin.
Before November ninth, the mood in the capital is akin to what Mark Jones calls a "feverlike tension". Rumors are making the rounds that the left is setting up lists with every wealthy person's name and address. Or that the Sailors from Kiel are traveling directly to Berlin via Zeppelin. The members of the left in Berlin are also afraid because this is most likely where the transition of power won't be peaceful. Here is how one left-leaning politician phrases it:
"On the evening of November eight, I was standing at Hallesches Tor. Heavily armed infantry columns, machine gun companies, and light artillery passed by me in an endless procession. The human material looked quite audacious. They had been deployed in the East to crush the Russian workers and peasants, and in Finland, with success. There was no doubt about the intention to drown the revolution in the blood of the people.
Now, that the decisive hour was fast approaching, a nightmarish feeling
gripped me, a great fear for my comrades."
There are also fears of what happens even if the old system implodes like in other cities because it is still an open question what comes after. Ebert and the social democrats in Berlin are busy pulling strings behind the scenes so that they end up on top when this is over. People like Karl Liebknecht and the Spartacists want to keep that from happening. So the fear of social democrats and further left revolutionaries bashing each other's heads in as soon as the monarchy is gone is a legitimate one. The Spartacists realize that this is the moment the rubber meets the road. It's now or never. They drive around the city, throwing leaflets from the back of trucks calling for an end to not only the old order but also any kind of half-measure. One of these distributed by the Spartacists and signed by Liebknecht reads:
"Now that the hour for action has arrived, there can be no going back. The same (in quotes) ‘socialists’ who for four years have performed pimping services for the government, and who in the past few weeks have been putting you off . . . with parliamentarization and other rubbish, are now trying everything to weaken the revolution by appeasing the movement. Workers and soldiers: what your comrades in Kiel, Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck, Rostock, Flensburg, Hanover, Magdeburg, Brunswick, Munich, and Stuttgart have achieved, you must achieve as well. Because from what you are struggling for, from the toughness and the success of your struggle, depends also the success of the proletariat in all the world."
On November ninth, at 8:00 o clock in the morning, it starts. Workers from every major company kick off a gigantic general strike. Masses of people are pouring into the streets. Folks from all walks of life are making their way through the city, waving red flags and shouting "long live the republic!". The social democrats realize that there is no way they can tiptoe around this any longer. The Kaiser hasn't complied with their ultimatum, so now they approach the independents about creating a joint interim-government. The independents agree, and at the same time, the social democrats try to install themselves at the head of the revolution by also calling for a general strike.
At this time, it still an open question of what will be the reaction? Will the troops flock to the revolution, or will they stand opposed to it? Days prior, the military send a couple of units to Berlin, which they believe to be exceptionally loyal to the Kaiser. It just happens so that the battalion that is seen as the most reliable contacts the social democrats on the morning of November ninth and requests a briefing on the political situation. A member of the party who would later become its head travels to the barracks the battalion is stationed at, and now it's on him to prevent the massive bloodshed that might occur. He tries to persued the soldiers with a speech in which he says:
"Now it is up to you to put an end to the bloodletting out there. But you must also decide whether you wish to raise your weapons against your fellow countrymen [Volksgenossen]. I do not ask to which party you belong. If you want the German people to decide its own fate in the future, then place yourself at the disposal of the Social Democratic Party today. Affirm this by shouting: Long live peace! Long live the free German People’s State!"
From this point on, this battalion, which had already set up a council the night before, and soldiers throughout the city flock to the revolution's side and join the massive crowds marching towards Berlin's government district. This is the last nail in the coffin for the old system, and Max von Baden sees no other way than trying to reach the Kaiser again. He doesn't because when he calls at the mansion, Wilhelm is in the garden, so they communicate via servants. There is a back and forth, each side talking past the other until someone, it will later be subject to debate who exactly, on the other side says, "okay the Kaiser abdicated."
This doesn't even come close to any official, legal process, but it's all von Baden needs, and at 12 AM, November ninth, the newspapers spread the word that the Kaiser is gone. Almost immediately after, Philip Scheidemann and Friedrich Ebert meet Max von Baden in the Reichstag. They straight up tell him: The only way to prevent this revolution from turning out like the Russian one is von Baden stepping down and allowing a government's formation consisting of social democrats and independents.
Von Baden, doesn't fight back. At this point, he is just a broken man. In the last episode, we talked about von Baden's family, always looking down on him. For instance, the queen of Sweden would later say: "As soon as I knew Max was in charge I knew this would end in disaster." Max feels like he has just re-affirmed what his family said all along so, he's done.
Ebert is offered the position of chancellor, which he accepts. But it's important to note that this isn't purely a cynical power grab by him. He really believes that this is the only way to prevent a social revolution. In this exchange with von Baden, he even says he doesn't want that kind of revolution "I hate it like the sin" is the quote.
Throughout this episode, you might have wondered, why are the social democrats so hellbent on preventing a bolshevik revolution, and the answer is relatively simple.
The social democrats are not a revolutionary party anymore, at least not in the Marxist sense. Their main objectives are improving worker's rights, building up a social safety net, giving women the right to vote, and (above all) a peaceful transition into a parliamentarian democracy.
They will catch a lot of flak for not getting on board with a social revolution when they had the chance but what often goes unmentioned is that they are legitimately representing a huge chunk of the population. It's not just Ebert who doesn't want this but also their constituency and remember, the social democrats are the largest party in the country. There are multiple reasons historians point out as to why the idea of a social revolution didn't gain as much traction in early November as in Russia. From what I can see, the two main ones are the image people had in their heads of what the Russian revolution entailed: a massive amount of violence. And people are scared of that. Only a couple of months ago, the German ambassador to Russia got shot by revolutionaries in Moscow. One historian calls this the "Anti-Chaos reflex". Ergo the population reads the stories coming out of Russia, and their foremost thought is "I don't want that. Anything but civil war."
The other reason is that compared to Russia, more people felt like they had an avenue of reaching their political goals. Under the German monarchy, the right to vote was expanded, although it is still constrained. There is a fair amount of union organization happening. The idea of a "dictatorship of the proletariat" is simply much more appealing in a police state like pre-revolution Russia than in Germany.
Robert Gerwarth summarizes it like this in his book "November 1918"
Ebert knew too well that Imperial Germany—unlike tsarist Russia—was not an autocratic state. Despite its semi-authoritarian constitution that limited parliamentary control of the government, the German working classes had long enjoyed rights—from the right to unionize to universal male suffrage, to social benefits—that ordinary workers in Russia could only dream of. Even if social and economic injustices persisted, most German workers in 1914 would have agreed that they would benefit more from reforms than from revolution.
While von Baden hands the reigns of government to Ebert, tens of thousands of people surround the Reichstag. Soldiers all across the city leave their posts. One major shoots himself after his units disobey his orders and join the masses. In a little over a week, this revolution has swept the entire country, and now all eyes rest on the Reichstag. Around 2 PM, Philip Scheideman opens a window to address the masses. And by now, this crowd is tens of thousands of people large. Standing in a large window, he says this:
The German people have been victorious all along the line. The old and rotten has collapsed; militarism is finished! The Hohenzollerns have abdicated! Long live the German Republic! Deputy Ebert has been proclaimed Reich Chancellor. Ebert has been authorized to assemble a new government. All the socialist parties will belong to this government. Our task now lies in not allowing this radiant victory, this complete victory of the German people, to become soiled, and that is why I ask you to ensure that public safety is not disturbed! We must be able to feel proud of this day for all the future! Nothing must exist that one could later blame us for! Calm, order, and safety are what we need now! . . . Ensure that the new German Republic that we will erect is not endangered by anything. Long live the German Republic!
The response is waves of cheers and applause. People breathe a sigh of relief across the country- the battleships along the cost fire of a cavalcade of fireworks in celebration. The German Revolution is over.
Retroactively this revolution is often called unfinished or failed even because of what came after—the Third Reich. But if we look at what this movement accomplished and how and how fast they did it. One might be inclined to agree with one contemporary who calls it "The Greatest of all Revolutions." Within not even two weeks, the monarchy's grip on the country that existed for hundreds of years gets just shattered. The military elites can do nothing but watch as their soldiers desert their posts and wave the red flag. And all of this happens relatively peacefully. A dreaded civil war doesn't happen. The old government collapses, and now nothing stands in the way of an end to the violence. Or so you might think. Because if you believe, now that the monarchy is gone, everyone is basically on the same page, you are highly mistaken. Merely hours after Scheidemann's speech at the Reichstag, the republic is proclaimed again. This time by none other than Karl Liebknecht.
Standing on the roof of the city palace, in front of thousands of people, he shouts:
“The day of the revolution has come. We have enforced peace. Peace has been concluded in this moment. The old has gone. The rule of the Hohenzollern, who have resided in this palace for centuries, is over. In this very hour, we proclaim the Free Socialist Republic of Germany. The rule of capitalism, which has turned Europe into a cemetery, is broken.
We have to collect all our force to establish a government of workers and soldiers, to create a new stately order of the proletariat, an order of peace, of prosperity, of liberty of our German brethren, and of our brethren all over the world. We stretch out our hands to them and call on them to complete the world revolution.”
If you assumed a kind of left unity would grow out of this revolution, I'm afraid I have to disappoint you. The countries far-right is much more unified in their rage and disgust for the events of early November. And from now on, they are just lying in wait for revenge on what they will call the November criminals. You perhaps get the best sense of what is about to come when I tell you that the violence of the mass execution I described at the beginning of the episode is absolutely nothing to the total amount of political violence about to erupt in the country. And we will see how and how long this new republic can withstand when there are strong forces at work, from minute one, that want to strangle this young republic in its cradle.
Hey folks, thank you for listening all the way through. This episode was significantly harder to write just because so much is happening. It makes it a lot more challenging to tell this as a compelling story when you're forced to jump from one place in time to another continually. I hope you enjoyed it nonetheless. One thing before I let you go. If you want to read through the work of the actual historians whose work allows me to do these episodes, here is what you can do. Head to youtube.com, slash TheIronDice, and in the description to each episode, you can find a list of all the books I used. Alright, you can follow the podcast on Twitter @IronDicePod or myself @Dan underscore Arrows and with that I hope you'll tune in the next time and have a good one.