Germans Revolt and Form a Socialist Government

The German Revolution marked a defeat for autocratic monarchy and a victory for responsible government.

Summary of Event

The German Revolution of 1918-1919 was a direct result of the German defeat in World War I. World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period As of 1914, only a handful of German liberals were also “Republicans.” Members of the Social Democratic Party Social Democratic Party (Germany) (SPD) were revisionist Marxists, too old and conservative to promote revolution, and German society was too prosperous and complacent to demand radical change. German Revolution (1918-1919)
Weimar Republic
[kw]Germans Revolt and Form a Socialist Government (1918-1919)
[kw]Revolt and Form a Socialist Government, Germans (1918-1919)
[kw]Socialist Government, Germans Revolt and Form a (1918-1919)
German Revolution (1918-1919)
Weimar Republic
[g]Germany;1918-1919: Germans Revolt and Form a Socialist Government[04430]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1918-1919: Germans Revolt and Form a Socialist Government[04430]
[c]Government and politics;1918-1919: Germans Revolt and Form a Socialist Government[04430]
Ebert, Friedrich
Scheidemann, Philipp
Liebknecht, Karl
Luxemburg, Rosa
Wilson, Woodrow
[p]Wilson, Woodrow;German Revolution
Hindenburg, Paul von
Ludendorff, Erich
Groener, Wilhelm

Four years of war, blockade, rationing, casualties, and shortages greatly reduced German national morale. The failure to end the war victoriously was a factor in the German industrial strike of January, 1918, the first major sign of popular antiwar sentiment. The strike was called off on February 3 as Germany prepared for the 1918 drive to take Paris. When this gamble failed, Germany’s chance for victory was gone. The nation’s allies (Bulgaria, Turkey, and Austria-Hungary) began to capitulate or collapse, and the outnumbered German soldiers on the western front began to surrender. Germany’s enemies (Britain, France, the United States, and Italy) advanced with increasing confidence, divided on some territorial issues but united in their war aim of demanding the removal of the German emperor, William II, whom they blamed for the war itself.

In September of 1918, the German high command—Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff—insisted that the emperor’s new chancellor, Maximilian, prince of Baden, seek an immediate armistice from the Allies and also form a broader coalition government, including the Centrists, Progressives, and Socialists, whom Ludendorff blamed for his military defeat. The armistice notes between Maximilian and U.S. president Woodrow Wilson clearly pressured Maximilian into making the October 28 reforms by which the emperor’s veto power in the Bundesrat, his personal control of the chancellor, and his personal command of the army were all ceded to the popularly elected Reichstag. On paper, the emperor had become only a figurehead. Wilson, however, persistently declined to make any binding commitment to William II, who headed the Allies’ list of German war criminals to be tried. The German people began to view their emperor as an obstacle in the armistice negotiations.

Decisive events were set in motion when the German navy’s October 28 order for a quixotic “last battle” against the British caused a seamen’s mutiny beginning on October 29. This incident sparked a flame of revolt that spread through northern and western German cities, with demonstrators calling for peace, bread, and William II’s abdication. As the authority of the German Empire crumbled, the Berlin Socialist leaders, who had planned to seize power after the armistice signing at Compiègne, France, on November 11, 1918, were forced to advance this action by two days.

Saturday, November 9, became the day of the German Revolution. Berlin’s workers staged marches and shouted for the emperor to step down. In the chancellery, Maximilian and a changing group of political leaders agreed that the time for abdication had come. They telephoned their views to the General Staff Headquarters at Spa, where the emperor listened to Hindenburg, Wilhelm Groener (Ludendorff’s replacement), and other generals emphatically telling him that he no longer had the support of the troops and must abdicate.

At noon, as the demonstrators converged on the chancellery, Maximilian had the Wolff Telegraph Agency announce that William II had resolved to renounce the throne, although in fact the emperor fled to Holland on November 10 before signing any documents of abdication. Meanwhile, Maximilian invited Friedrich Ebert to become chancellor. Ebert was the leader of the Social Democrats, the largest single party in the adjourned Reichstag. With this peaceful if dubiously legal step, the German party leaders combined legitimacy with revolution.

Ebert’s immediate task was to calm the crowds in Berlin, where fifteen people had been killed, as a first step toward establishing national control and order. Near day’s end he received a telephone call from General Groener, who promised the support of Hindenburg and the army. The most potent force on the German right appeared to accept the revolution.

Late the following afternoon, some three thousand socialists, workers, and soldiers met at the Berlin Circus Busch to establish a new revolutionary government. Amid speeches calling for socialist unity, three SPD members, including Ebert and Philipp Scheidemann, were chosen as commissars, as were three leaders of the Independent Socialist Party Independent Socialist Party (Germany) (USDP). A small band of antiwar radicals who called themselves Spartacists, Spartacists (Germany) for the leader of a Roman slave revolt, were excluded from any substantive role. The Spartacist leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, declined any honorary posts. Constitutional questions were left to a later National Assembly, and social and human rights issues were left to a future Reich Congress of Workers and Soldiers.

The “bloody days” of the revolution in December and January stemmed from Berlin police power disputes between paramilitary leaders. After the Marstall incident of December 23-24, the Independent Socialists resigned as commissars and became active opponents of the bourgeois-socialist coalition. The Spartacists, again excluded from power at the December 16-18 Reich Congress of Councils, turned to the desperate expedient of depending on the prestige and financial support of a foreign source, Russian communism, represented in Germany by Lenin’s agent, Karl Radek.

The German Community Party, German Community Party or KPD, was established in Berlin on January 1, 1919. In the hope of gaining broader support, the new party joined the Berlin police dispute in January. At the Sunday, January 5, mass demonstration in the Siegesallee, the USDP, KPD, and Shop Stewards proclaimed Ebert’s overthrow, the establishment of a revolutionary government, and a general strike for January 6. Seriously threatened, Ebert’s government fought back, resorting to right-wing Freikorps volunteers to suppress the uprising. On January 15, Liebknecht and Luxemburg were apprehended, brought to Freikorps headquarters at the Hotel Eden, openly clubbed into insensibility, and subsequently shot. The SPD coalition government began to depend increasingly on aggressive Freikorps elements of a reviving right wing.

In the National Assembly elections of January 19, the SPD polled 37.9 percent and the Independents 7.6 percent, a 45.5 percent total that was socialism’s best showing in the Weimar era but not a mandate for socialization. The assembly elected Ebert as provisional president and Scheidemann as chancellor. Sporadic civil strife in Germany continued from January through May, with twelve hundred or more killed in Berlin in March.

The Second Reich Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils met April 8-14 to discuss economic and social goals for the projected councils that were to be part of the new government. These sessions were the most extensive discussions of citizens’ rights and socialization plans by a major forum during the revolution. Some of their ideas were referred to in the new constitution, but not always in enforceable form.

After the June 28 signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the Weimar National Assembly voted approval (262 to 75) of the new constitution, which went into effect on August 11, 1919. The national government returned from Weimar to Berlin. The Weimar Constitution, Weimar Constitution drafted by a committee under Professor Hugo Preuss, made Germany a people’s state republic governed by parliamentary democracy. Proportional representation in the Reichstag gave voting status to small minority parties, making it difficult for any one party to gain a majority, and coalition governments were the norm in the Weimar period. Suffrage for men and women at age twenty was universal. Article 48 of the constitution gave the president extensive emergency powers that were significant in the decline and fall of the republic from 1930 to 1933.

The constitution’s fifty-seven clauses devoted to individual and group rights were hailed as advanced and groundbreaking. Some of these, however, were only the philosophical slogans of different political parties: “All Germans are equal before the law”; “Motherhood has a claim to the protection and care of the state”; “War veterans shall receive special consideration”; “The right of private property is guaranteed”; “Freedom of contract prevails”; and “Labor is under the special protection of the Commonwealth.” Some of these ideas were sorted into practical gains by the Reichstag or by the National Economic Council, but the councils often became tools of business interests. The constitution’s economic promises were hard to achieve, even before the stock market crash in 1929.

In the spring of 1920, the army’s “Kapp Putsch” in Berlin and subsequent national elections showed a distinct ultraconservative trend. The most dangerous threats to the Weimar Republic came from the nationalist right, fatally consolidated in 1933 by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi movement.


The German Revolution and the Weimar Republic had more of a lasting impact on the German people than on Germany’s neighbors, who hoped that defeat in World War I had shown Germany the folly of aggressive nationalism and militarism. Later, after the Nazi takeover of 1933, the German Revolution and the Weimar Republic were widely blamed for failing to prevent this calamity. In fact, the Weimar era did make some progress in human rights. Ending the arbitrary monarchy of the Hohenzollerns and the legal titles of hereditary nobility were steps in democratization, as were suffrage and equal rights for women and the end of Prussia’s property-based three-class suffrage system. The regulation of working conditions, especially for children, was a real reform, as were improvements in health, both in conjunction with the League of Nations. In the field of civil liberties, the Weimar Constitution balanced individual and group rights in search of a German sense of community, with state intervention permissible only by authority of law.

Certainly, the Weimar Republic was involved in misadventures and mistakes. In Germany as elsewhere, direct government provisions proved disappointing. The most significant use of the referendum was in the 1929 Nazi-Nationalist propaganda attack on the Young Plan of war reparations financing. More frequently criticized was the failure to develop a revolutionary armed force similar to the Red Army, which Trotsky created in Russia. Some critics have overlooked the extent of political confusion and revulsion against war that dominated postarmistice Germany.

Less easy to comprehend is the republic’s failure to reform and purge the judiciary, the civil service, and the educational system. Conservative judges were notoriously lenient to right-wing extremists, and higher education in the humanities and sciences was overwhelmingly limited to upper-class and upper-middle-class students. The “workers’ republic” treated the working class as inferior, while right- and left-wing intellectuals derided and ridiculed the institutions and leaders of the republic.

The division of the Left was a problem for the revolution. No single party had a majority in the Reichstag, and the Social Democratic leaders of 1918 were already known as revisionists and reformers rather than Marxist radicals. If Ebert and his colleagues were guilty of betraying the revolution and stabbing the revolution in the back, as some accused, they did it in plain sight and with the support of the voters. It was the minority extremists who perpetuated the division, while blaming it on the majority.

In broad terms, the German Revolution of 1918 and the Weimar Republic were the products of defeat and were burdened by the Treaty of Versailles, the Ruhr occupation, the inflation of 1923, and mass unemployment following the stock market crash of 1929. In spite of all this, after the Nazi era and the devastation that Germany brought on itself in World War II, the West German people in 1949 resurrected a republican government much like the Weimar regime of 1919. German Revolution (1918-1919)
Weimar Republic

Further Reading

  • Caldwell, Peter C. Popular Sovereignty and the Crisis of German Constitutional Law: The Theory and Practice of Weimar Constitutionalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997. Presents analysis of the debates concerning political theory and constitutional law that took place in the Weimar Republic. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Coper, Rudolf. Failure of a Revolution. London: Cambridge University Press, 1955. Brief, readable account, decidedly pro-Spartacist in interpretation. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Eyck, Eric. A History of the Weimar Republic. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962. Standard general history of the period supplies a German perspective. Coverage of the 1918 revolution is brief. Includes notes, extensive bibliography, and index.
  • Haffner, Sebastian. Failure of a Revolution. Translated by George Rapp André. 1973. Reprint. Chicago: Banner Press, 1986. Ludendorff and Ebert are the chief villains in this brief and entertaining but superficial and even fanciful account. Includes index of persons only.
  • Halperin, S. William. Germany Tried Democracy. 1946. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1965. Well-written survey of the years 1918 to 1933 presents the interpretation that the Weimar Republic “was sabotaged by friend and foe alike.” Includes extensive bibliography and index.
  • Lutz, R. H. The Fall of the German Empire. 2 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1932. Contains a selection of documents and articles from Lutz’s twelve-volume work, Causes of the German Collapse in 1918 (University of California Press, 1934). Includes chronology of events and index.
  • Mommsen, Hans. The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy. Translated by Elborg Forster and Larry Eugene Jones. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Examines the period of the Weimar Republic from the perspective of Germany’s political and economic history. Includes selected bibliography and index.
  • Pinson, Koppel. Modern Germany: Its History and Civilization. 2d ed. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1989. College textbook includes detailed information on the German collapse and revolution in 1918-1919. Includes notes, bibliography, and index.
  • Rosenberg, Arthur. The Birth of the German Republic. Translated by Ian F. D. Morrow. 1931. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1962. Classic account by a USDP-KPD participant and scholar. Author’s political viewpoint does color his interpretation, but the narrative gives a valuable sense of the period.
  • Ryder, A. J. The German Revolution of 1918. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1967. Broad-based, scholarly work updates some of the earlier research. One of the most useful single volumes on the subject. Includes notes, bibliography, and index.
  • Scheidemann, Philipp. The Making of New Germany. Translated by J. E. Mitchell. 2 vols. New York: D. Appleton, 1929. Memoirs present Scheidemann’s impressions of the events of November 9 and 10, of which he was a witness and participant.
  • Waldman, Eric. The Spartacist Uprising of 1919 and the Crisis of the German Socialist Movement. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1958. Brief, clear, and critically well-balanced analysis of crucial factors within the Spartacist movement. Includes notes, bibliography, and index.

Weimar Constitution

Hitler Comes to Power in Germany

Reichstag Fire

Enabling Act of 1933