A History of the German Republic, Arthur Rosenberg 1936
On 10 November 1918, the first republican government of Germany was elected at a general meeting in the Busch Circus of the Berlin Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Councils. The Berlin Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Councils in taking this decision were acting as the representatives of all revolutionary workmen and soldiers in the German Reich. No single voice was raised throughout the Reich in opposition to their decision. Thus Germany accepted its new government composed of six representatives of the people.
The first government of the German Republic depended for its immediate support upon a coalition between the Majority Socialists and the Independent Socialists. Each party had three representatives in the Cabinet. Ebert, Scheidemann and Landsberg represented the Majority Socialists, and Haase, Dittmann and Barth the Independent Socialists. These six men were the political rulers of Germany. They united in themselves simultaneously the functions of President and Chancellor. At the same time the individual ministries each with its secretary of state remained in existence. Among these secretaries of state were to be found middle-class politicians belonging to the Centre and Liberal parties. The government elected on 10 November was to outward seeming a purely Socialist government, in conformity with the apparent tendency of the November Revolution, which came into being as the work of the Socialists beneath the shadow of the red flag. In reality governmental power rested in the old coalition formed in 1917 between the three democratic parties – the Majority Socialists, the Centre and the Liberals. These three parties constituted the majority in the Reichstag that in 1917 had supported Erzberger’s peace resolution. When the military dictatorship of General Ludendorff collapsed in October 1918, these parties formed a new government with Prince Max of Baden at its head. The revolution in November strengthened the coalition by the addition of the Independent Socialists, and caused its internal centre of gravity to move far over on to the side of the socialist working class. Nevertheless, after 10 November 1918 Germany as a whole remained what it had already been in October of that year – a middle-class democratic state. For the peaceful revolution in October that followed the fall of General Ludendorff brought into being a middle-class democratic state, in which power lay in the hands of the Reichstag, while the Emperor was forced to content himself with a purely ceremonial position. The lesser federal princes were as helpless as the Emperor. The November Revolution destroyed the German dynasties. It failed to effect any other important change in the character of the German state.
German democracy was in truth only a few weeks old. In conjunction with Prince Max’s government the Reichstag had only drawn up a new political constitution in its very broadest outlines. The great and complicated task of the reconstruction of Germany awaited the new republican government. That government was in an immensely strong position. It is true that the government was forced to sign an armistice with the Allied and associated powers that finally broke the military power of Germany. Nevertheless it is no less true that Germany could no longer prosecute the war. It was to be expected that the Allied armies would follow close upon the retreating German troops and would occupy Alsace-Lorraine and the left bank of the Rhine. If, however, the Allied troops remained on the Rhine, then it would be possible throughout the greater part of Germany for political changes to take place without interference on the part of foreign generals. The situation in the east was less clear. The German government could definitely assume that the peace treaty would deprive Germany of all her conquests in the east, and that Prussian Poland would be handed over to the new Polish state. At the same time the exact frontier which was in future to separate Germany from her eastern neighbours was still unknown at the beginning of November 1918. Hence the German government had to take into its calculations the possibility that before the conclusion of a definite peace Poland would attempt to seize certain districts. It was further possible that in the German eastern provinces armed conflicts would arise between Germans and Poles. The new Polish state created by the Allied and associated powers was an improvised political structure lacking in real military strength. There was never at any time in those days any real danger that the Poles would march on Berlin and paralyse the administration of the German republic. It is true that in the following months fierce local fighting broke out between Germans and Poles in West Prussia, Posen and Upper Silesia. At no time, however, did the military strength of Poland constitute a serious threat to the existence of the German republic. Hence it was possible for the new republican government to devote itself to the work of domestic reconstruction without serious interruption arising out of military incidents in the frontier districts.
In domestic politics the new republican government found itself in an unprecedentedly strong position through the unwavering support given to it by millions of German soldiers. The November Revolution was the work of the home forces and the German sailors. Soldiers and sailors had refused to obey their officers, set up soldiers’ and sailors’ councils, and deposed the ruling dynasties. The working class throughout Germany united wholeheartedly with the soldiers and sailors. Workmen’s councils came into existence side by side with soldiers’ councils. Nevertheless the impetus to the November Revolution was given wholly by the soldiers. If the army had been opposed to it, the working men alone would never have been able to carry out a revolution. The collapse of the old militico-dynastic order in Germany was the work solely of the military revolution. The troops at the front, especially those on the western front, retreated in good order under the leadership of their officers. The Supreme Command in the hands of Hindenburg and Groener continued to function and placed itself at the disposal of the new government. The troops at the front also set up soldiers’ councils, and, if it be true that acts of violence against officers rarely occurred, it is no less true that the armies in the field resolutely supported the new democratic republic.
At the beginning of November only a tiny minority of the German army opposed the revolution. It was composed of the sons of landed proprietors, wealthy merchants and high government officials. A similarly small minority in the army, composed of workmen and workmen’s sons who had become revolutionary socialists, was not satisfied with a democratic republic and wished to proceed immediately to the abolition of private property. The overwhelming majority of the soldiers, however, composed of workmen, peasants and middle-class town-dwellers, wished for a democratic republic, and supported Ebert’s government. There did not exist in Germany in those days a single military group worthy of mention either of the right or the left which was in opposition to the government. Hence the republican government had an immense military support at its disposal, and any revolt against its authority was doomed to failure from the outset. This was known to everyone in Germany who took the trouble to reflect upon the existing situation. The Supreme Command recognised this truth. Any attempt on the part of any section of the army at the front to revolt against the republican government would have been a forlorn hope. Any general who had made such an attempt in November 1918 would have been deserted by his men.
The losers in the November Revolution were the supporters of the old Prussian feudal system – the officers, landed gentry and high government officials. In those days they felt themselves to be completely powerless. The officers continued to perform their duties by permission of the government and the soldiers’ councils. This was also true of the higher officials who had remained at their posts. The great landowners east of the Elbe anxiously awaited a future that seemed likely to bring with it the confiscation of their estates. In those days the Prussian Junker was powerless to offer armed resistance to any such action. The Lutheran peasantry, who had been the support of the Conservatives until the outbreak of war, were embittered by bureaucratic maladministration of wartime food supplies, and, above all, by the sacrifice of blood and money that had been demanded of them during four long years of war. The peasant desired peace, and had lost all interest for and sympathy with the former system of government. This was shown by the course of events during the military revolts in the early days of November, when not a single body of troops recruited from the peasantry set itself in opposition to the revolution. It is true that these peasants were very far from being socialists. Nevertheless the new government had nothing to fear from them, especially if it expropriated and divided up among them the great East Elbian estates, and gave the land that had formerly belonged to the noblemen to the small peasant and the agricultural labourer.
The great industrialists were no less powerless than the feudal nobles who had governed Germany until October 1918. The state authority that had hitherto protected them with a powerful hand against the demands of the workmen no longer existed. It was necessary for them to be prepared for any eventuality. The great industrialists were alarmed at the prospect of the socialisation of industry with its accompaniment of a partial or complete expropriation of their factories. They were prepared to make any concession in order to retain their property. They were ready to recognise trade unions, to accept an eight-hour day, and to agree to increased wages and the social demands of the work-people. They were prepared to work in common with the labour organisations and to settle all industrial questions jointly with the trade union leaders if only they could escape expropriation by these means. In the former Empire the right wing of the National Liberal Party had been the political mouthpiece of the great industrialists. In common with the conservative parties this section of the National Liberals was numbered among the victims of 9 November. Both Conservatives and right-wing National Liberals were compelled to reconcile themselves to the complete loss of political power.
The middle-class democratic parties composing the parliamentary centre – the Centre Party itself, the Liberals, and the left wing of the National Liberals – participated in the overthrow of the old order in Germany at least as far as it had proceeded in October under the leadership of Prince Max of Baden. In Prince Max’s government, ministers from the Centre and the Liberal Party stood side by side with ministers from among the ranks of the Social Democrats. The November Revolution at first resulted in a diminution of the influence exercised by the Centre and the Liberals, who were forced to watch impotently the seizure of political power by the Social Democrats. This change in the political balance of forces found its outward expression in the new republican government in which six Social Democrats constituted the political power, while the middle-class ministers, that is, the secretaries of state, were admitted to their councils only as expert advisers. A similar state of affairs prevailed in Prussia, and in Bavaria and Saxony the revolutionary governments were wholly Socialist in character. In Württemberg, Baden and Hesse, Liberals and members of the Centre were given portfolios. Nevertheless the real political power lay in the hands of the Socialists, as was also the case in the small states. This transference of political power from the Centre and the Liberals to the Social Democrats seems at first sight remarkable inasmuch as the revolution of 9 November was of a pacifist and democratic republican character, and revealed few traces of being inspired by truly socialist ideas, such as the abolition of private property. The clue to the mystery is to be found once more in the factor that determined everything that happened during the month of November 1918 – the military revolution.
The German sailors and the soldiers composing the home garrisons revolted against their officers in order to force an immediate conclusion of peace. Although they embarked on actions which could only be regarded as criminal from the standpoint of a middle-class conception of law and order, they were not at the outset inspired by socialist ideals. In the eyes of the law their actions were tantamount to mutiny, to an armed rebellion against their superiors, and to a breach of their oath of allegiance to their supreme warlord. The criminal aspect of their actions was only intensified by the fact that they took place in time of war. Their actions were punishable by the existing criminal law, and especially by the ruthless martial law, with penal servitude or death. All the middle-class political parties in Germany had demanded and advocated unconditional obedience to the law and unwavering compliance with the calls of duty throughout the duration of the war. It is only necessary in order to understand the situation that existed at this time to take the case of a soldier who in prewar days had been a supporter of the Centre, and who under the influence of his wartime experiences now refused obedience to his officers. If this man arrested his lieutenant and participated in the election of a soldiers’ council, he could scarcely feel himself to be any longer a member of the Centre Party. For his actions were in glaring contrast to all the principles and pronouncements of the Centre and Liberal Parties. In reality the rebellious soldiery imitated the example set them – at least as far as appearances went – by the Russian Revolution. In refusing obedience to their officers and the Emperor, and in proclaiming the authority of the workmen’s and soldiers’ councils to be supreme, the soldiers were playing at being Bolshevists. The vast majority of the German soldiers in November 1918 were in reality not Bolshevists. But, although they were either members of middle-class political parties or independent of party politics, they were in fact indulging in a form of Bolshevism. The revolutionary German soldier in order to furnish himself with an ideological justification for his actions was compelled at least to pretend to socialism. Hence the red flag was substituted for the black-white-red. The masses realised with greater or less clarity that up till 1914 the Social Democrats had been the opponents of the Emperor and the army. The Independent Social Democrats from the very outset of their political life, and the Majority Socialists at least from 1917 onwards, had opposed the war and demanded the conclusion of peace. Hence it came about that the German soldiers took on the appearance of socialism by throwing off the authority of the generals and princes. And it was because the military revolution throughout Germany from Kiel to Munich was to outward seeming a socialist revolution that it united itself everywhere without difficulty with the revolutionary movement of the socialist working class. In this fashion it came about that on 9 November 1918 the red flag flew throughout Germany. The armed forces proclaimed their sympathy with the socialists, and in doing so conferred the real power in the state upon the Social Democrats.
At first the Centre and the Liberals contented themselves with playing second fiddle. An armed revolution against the superior power of the Social Democrats would have been useless. The Progressives and the left wing of the National Liberals were composed of intellectuals, clerks, officials and other people belonging to the middle classes. These circles were completely in agreement with the overthrow of the former governmental system and wished to replace it by a democratic republic. At the same time they were fearful lest the supreme and undivided government of the Social Democrats should lead to a class terror on the part of the working class, the oppression of the middle class, and wild economic experiments. In any case, the liberal German middle classes were completely devoid of the power to set themselves in armed opposition to the course of events. This wholly accorded with the historical tradition of German liberalism. The conduct of the liberal middle class in the revolution of 1848 was extraordinarily weak and wavering. There followed the Bismarckian era with its establishment of a new and immensely powerful Imperial government. The German middle class bowed down in admiration before the leaders of this era – Bismarck, Moltke, William I. Then came William II. In his reign the unprecedented authority of the Prussian-German Empire was simply thrown away. It was with growing discontent that middle-class liberals watched the adventures and failures of William II. In the years immediately preceding the World War, middle-class opposition to the Imperial government steadily increased in intensity. Nevertheless the idea of revolution never entered into anybody’s mind. On the outbreak of war the liberal middle class accepted the political truce. After 1917 their sympathies were with the majority in the Reichstag in its endeavours to bring peace to the suffering German nation. Then came the revolution. Nothing remained for the liberals except to wait and see what the Social Democrats would do.
The historical development of the Centre Party in Germany was pursued on similar lines. The Catholic workmen and peasants in western and southern Germany constituted its principal support. Ever since the establishment of the Empire in 1871, the Centre had been the opponent of a Prussian military hegemony in Germany. It suffered persecution at the time of the Kulturkampf. Subsequently the Centre made its peace at least formally with the Hohenzollern Empire, and in 1914 accepted the political truce in common with all other parties. Nevertheless the innate dislike of Prussianism animating the masses in western and southern Germany was not to be eradicated in this fashion. It was perhaps not purely by chance that the rebellious majority in the Reichstag in 1917 was brought into existence by a south German member of the Centre Party named Erzberger. At the same time the Centre was wholly lacking in any tradition of revolutionary activity or of independent armed revolt. Hence in November 1918, it, like the liberals, retreated into the background of the political stage.
The dissolution of the middle-class parties of the right and the temporary impotence of the middle-class Centre left the Social Democrats as masters of the political field. Supported by the ‘red’ soldiers and workmen, their task was to be the creation and organisation of a German republic – a task which took the Social Democrats completely unprepared and unawares. Pioneers of socialism in Germany – Marx and Engels – had been revolutionary democrats after the pattern of 1848. Their aim was the achievement of political power as the necessary preliminary to an economic revolution. Marx and Engels always looked upon the state and society as an entity. They regarded all departments of public life as of equal importance. They demanded that their party should revolutionise the whole national life. The attempts made by Marx and Engels to organise a political party in Germany came to nothing in consequence of the failure of the revolution of 1848. The man who subsequently became the founder of the German Social Democratic Party – Ferdinand Lassalle – belonged to the school of Marx and Engels, alike in his political universality and his all-embracing realism. After his early death, Lassalle’s successors pursued another path.
The German Social Democratic Party was the party most representative of the Second International. This was especially true after the end of the epoch of the Anti-Socialist Laws in 1890. The party was organised at a time when there was no possibility of revolutionary action in Europe outside of Russia. It therefore accepted the existence of the Empire and of a capitalist organisation of society as irrevocable facts. The socialist revolution disappeared in the mists that enshrouded the state of the future. In common with all parties comprised in the Second International, the German Social Democrats considered their principal task to be the safeguarding and improvement of the material lot of the working class within the framework of the middle-class state. In this field the German Social Democrats and, above all, the independent trade unions that were allied with them, achieved splendid results up to the outbreak of war. For the German Socialists, as also for the Second International, Marxism was only a means to separate ideologically their own movement from the middle class. The formal radicalism of the Second International exhausted itself in a continuous bitter polemic directed against the middle-class state and its organs, against militarism, and against the dynasties. All cooperation with the middle-class parties or with the government was utterly condemned. The Social Democrats voted against the budget and bitterly opposed the government’s military and foreign policy. Nevertheless Social Democrats never took thought to formulate plans for changing the existing form of the state.
Thus prewar Social Democracy as embodied in August Bebel combined activity for the workers’ welfare with a passive and theoretical radicalism in all other spheres of public life. In general the Social Democratic Party official had no real interest in problems of foreign policy and the army, education, the administration of justice, the civil administration and even economic problems as a whole, and especially the agrarian problem. He never realised that the day might come when the Social Democrat would be called upon to decide all these matters. His interest was concentrated solely upon everything that concerned the technical interests of the industrial working class in the narrow sense of the term. In this sphere he was both well informed and active. Outside it he was perhaps interested above all else in the suffrage question.
Lassalle had rightly called upon the German working class to fight for universal suffrage in order to secure political power in the state. When this was accorded by the constitution of the North German Confederation, and subsequently of the German Empire in 1871, the Social Democrats made the utmost use of it. With only a few exceptions, the Social Democrat vote increased from one Reichstag election to another, until finally in 1903 the Social Democrats secured a third of the entire votes. Their defeat in the election of 1907 was more than made good in 1912 in the elections to the last Reichstag of the German Empire. The Reichstag elections were the thermometer that showed the condition of the Social Democratic movement. The highest honour that could be conferred upon a local Socialist organisation was to win a seat in the Reichstag. The greater the increase in the working-class vote in the Reichstag elections, the more bitter became the anger of the working class that the Prussian electoral law condemned the working man to political impotence. The campaign for electoral reform in Prussia was conducted with special vigour by the Social Democrats until 1914, and the contest was renewed during the World War.
Elections are unquestionably of outstanding importance in every country, and especially in countries with a parliamentary constitution. A political movement, however, that relies solely upon the ballot-box and leaves all other factors out of account is liable to experience bitter disappointments. If the army and great economic forces are opposed to it, a parliamentary majority is powerless. A democracy can only truly function if the rhythm of parliamentary life harmonises with the other social forces. The prewar Social Democrats in Germany were unquestionably right in stressing the importance of the Reichstag elections and in endeavouring to secure for themselves powerful representation in the Reichstag. Moreover, they were equally right in advocating the reform of the archaic Prussian electoral system. A certain element of danger nevertheless lay concealed in this cult of elections and electoral successes in consequence of the purely academic radicalism that dominated the party up to the outbreak of war. It is true that the cult was never given formal expression, and that every party official would have rejected it with contumely. Nevertheless German Socialists as a whole up to 1914 unconsciously regarded social policy and the suffrage as the most important things in the world, and let all other questions sink into the background. This one-sided education of the German working class by the Social Democratic Party was destined to bear bitter fruit in the course of the revolution after 9 November 1918.
Until 1914 the leaders, a great majority of the officials, and the ordinary members of the German Social Democratic Party were inspired by an academic radicalism. It is true that there were also two groups sharply distinguished from each other who nevertheless were in agreement in pursuing a realistic activist policy in opposition to the academic radicalism that inspired the party’s official policy. A tiny group composing the extreme left rejected the notion that stable economic and political conditions must be reckoned with for a long time to come. Instead, this group prophesied a great war in the immediate future, and arising out of it vast revolutionary movements. Hence they demanded that the Social Democratic Party should adjust its policy to prepare for the future. The working class must train itself in readiness for revolutionary struggles and the seizure of power. In complete contradistinction to the extreme left, the extreme right of the Social Democratic Party believed in the survival of capitalism for a long time to come. If this prognostication was correct, the party must be courageous enough to admit its truth publicly before the masses. Spurious radical formulae should be abandoned in favour of practical cooperation in the administration of the existing state and in striving for political reforms in alliance with middle-class parties. Only thus – the extreme right declared – would the Social Democratic Party, and with it the working class, achieve its proper share of political power. Nevertheless the supporters of this view – the so-called Revisionists – and the extreme left were unable to weaken the authority of the party leaders over the membership.
At the outbreak of the World War the party leaders decided to support their country’s cause. Domestic peace became as integral a part of their programme from 4 August 1914 as opposition had previously been. The Social Democratic Party regarded it as its duty in time of war to criticise the government as little as possible; for if the Socialists were to go into opposition there would be every reason to fear the overthrow of the government, and the paralysation of the German High Command, which might lead to the defeat of Germany with results catastrophic to the working classes. The leaders and the majority of the party therefore felt that their hands were tied as a consequence of the war, and it was not until the year 1917 was already well advanced that they entered into opposition. This policy, which subsequently became known as Majority Socialism after the split in the party, was virtually a continuation – though with a different emphasis – of the official formal policy pursued by the prewar party leaders. Majority Socialism found its embodiment in Ebert and Scheidemann.
The extreme left refused unconditionally to agree to a party truce on the ground that the World War would result in the proletarian revolution. Under the leadership of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the so-called Spartacus Union embarked on an illegal campaign against the Imperial government. The Revisionists split up into several groups. A part of the old Revisionists, the supporters of the Sozialistischen Monatshefte, was in agreement with the party leaders in supporting the war, while at the same time it rejected their policy of non-opposition and demanded an independent and if necessary opposition policy in all vital questions. A second group of Revisionists supported the party leaders, and a third, led by the Revisionist doctrinaire Bernstein and by Eisner, left the party and founded a new Independent Social Democratic Party in conjunction with other former supporters of the party leadership.
The great majority of the prewar radicals continued after 4 August to support Ebert and Scheidemann. A minority, however, under the leadership of Dittmann and Haase, refused their allegiance. They looked upon the political truce as injurious to their cause, demanded an independent proletarian policy, and saw in a refusal to vote money credits for war purposes an act symbolic of political independence. In this policy Haase and Dittmann, as has already been mentioned above, found themselves in alliance with former Revisionists under Bernstein’s leadership.
The conflict between the supporters and the opponents of the political truce for years turned German Social Democracy into a house divided against itself. An open breach occurred in 1917 between the prewar Social Democrats, who were now known as the Majority Socialists, and the opposition minority which joined the Independent Social Democrats. Although the Spartacists formally joined the Independent Social Democratic Party, they nevertheless remained a separate entity, since their policy was wholly different from that of the USPD.  Whilst the Spartacists were trying to promote a revolution, the USPD leaders were content with the pacific policy of parliamentary opposition. It is a singular irony that at the very time at which the official breach took place in German Social Democracy, the material differences between the two tendencies were steadily disappearing. Ever since 1917 and the construction of the Reichstag majority which supported the peace resolution, the Majority Socialists had been in opposition to the Imperial government and had sought to promote peace along their own lines. This was in reality what the USPD was seeking to do, and therefore the sole cause of division between the two parties was over a purely symbolic issue – support of or opposition to the voting of additional war credits. If one does not allow oneself to be blinded by personal and other differences, it becomes clear that in reality the Majority Socialists and the USPD were in agreement as to the policy to be pursued – a constitutional opposition to the Imperial government with the object of achieving peace. The real difference in opinion inside German socialism lay between the two great Social Democratic Parties on the one hand and the tiny Spartacist Union on the other. For the Spartacists sought to establish a socialist republic by means of a revolution. The agreement in principle between the Majority Socialists and the USPD rendered possible the coalition government of 10 November 1918. The Spartacists constituted the opposition.
It is difficult to estimate the relative strengths of the three socialist parties in November 1918. A certain insight into them is nevertheless given by the results of subsequent elections. At the elections for the German National Assembly in January 1919, the Majority Socialists received eleven million votes, the Independent Social Democrats two million votes, and the Spartacists did not go to the poll. If it is possible to judge from subsequent elections, the Spartacists could not have polled more than some hundred thousand votes at this time. Thus the government Socialists counted some thirteen million votes in comparison with the opposition Socialists’ couple of hundred thousand. It would seem from these figures as if the Ebert-Haase government was very strongly supported by the socialist working class in comparison with the opposition. According to the above figures, the government must have been supported by about 95 per cent of the socialist proletariat. On the other hand, the events of the last months of 1918 and the first months of 1919 point to an entirely different conclusion. The three parties – SPD,  USPD, and Spartacists – cannot be made the subject of a purely statistical comparison.
No single one of these three parties constituted an undivided political entity in those months. All three were torn by internal dissensions, and the political stage was constantly the scene of the most extraordinary coalitions between parties and groups within parties. In this way the balance of power soon shifted to the government’s disadvantage.
The question of the day over which the German working class was sharply divided was: a National Assembly or a soviet government? The appearance of soviets after the Russian pattern completely altered German political life. Enthusiastically greeted on the one hand, rejected and abused on the other, the soviets were the apple of discord thrown into the midst of German socialist politics.
The soviets made their first appearance in the Russian Revolution of 1905. Under the Tsarist government neither socialist parties nor socialist trade unions were permitted to exist. The actions of the proletariat in western Europe were directed by the party and trade union organisation. In Tsarist Russia trade unions were hardly known, and political labour parties were composed of tiny illegal groups. Hence it came about that when the proletariat began to revolt they devised new organisations of the simplest kind. In St Petersburg the workers of each factory elected their own representatives, and these representatives in conference formed the St Petersburg Workmen’s Council. This was the first soviet, and it sought an alliance both with the revolutionary political parties and with revolutionary peasants and soldiers. In the Russian Revolution of 1905 the workmen’s councils were the fighting organisations that held together and directed revolutionary workmen.
The soviet immediately reappeared at the outset of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Workmen’s councils came into existence in the towns, and were once more composed of the men’s representatives from the different trades and industries. In addition, soldiers’ councils made their appearance everywhere as representatives of mutinous soldiery, while a third form of soviet came into being in the peasants’ councils, which were elected by the inhabitants of the individual villages. In Russia, in 1917, there existed a curious twofold system of government which was to reappear in Germany after 9 November 1918. On the one hand, there were the constitutional government officials, and on the other, the soviets representing a primitive form of democratic government by the working-class masses. The traditional middle-class state is characterised by a division of the sovereign authority into legislative and executive powers. These two powers were combined in the soviet. A soviet in a town passed the necessary resolutions for the municipal administration, and at the same time carried them out. For behind the soviet stood the proletarian armed force that served it as a police and executive organ.
At the outset the soviets had no organic connexion with Bolshevism. For Bolshevism means a strongly disciplined party in which the authority of the leaders is imposed upon every party member. According to the Bolshevist conception, the task of this highly disciplined party is to rule the entire country. The soviets, on the other hand, were the governmental instruments of an extreme form of democracy – the absolute and unrestricted self-government of the people. As early as the spring of 1917, however, Lenin recognised that only the soviets would be able to destroy the feudal and middle-class Russian state apparatus. It was for this reason that Lenin gave out the battle-cry ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ under which the Bolshevist revolution triumphed. As soon as the power of the Bolshevists was firmly established, soviet democracy was completely swept aside. And as early as 1918 Russia was ruled by the Bolshevist party dictatorship. According to the constitution, the soviets were omnipotent. In reality they were miserable shadows lacking all power and authority.
The soviets that came into existence in 1918 in Germany were true soviets, and not the shadow creations that the Bolshevists permitted to exist in Russia. For no single party in the German Revolution was capable of exercising a despotic dictatorship over the soviets. The Majority Socialists, as well as the Independents, proclaimed their belief in self-government by the working class. The Spartacists were both too few and too weak to tyrannise over the German workmen’s and soldiers’ councils. Moreover, the Spartacist leaders, especially Rosa Luxemburg, had sharply rejected the notion of any such party dictatorship over the proletariat.
On 10 November 1918, the workmen’s and soldier’s councils wielded the actual power throughout Germany, both in the town and in the country, supported by the revolutionary groups in the army and by the working men who in many places also furnished themselves with arms. The great political question was whether the councils would continue to rule in Germany, or whether they would be rendered useless by some fresh turn of events. In the Germany of 1918, there was really a dual government. For the former state and local authorities had not been abolished by the revolution. The state and provincial governments carried on their work under the supervision of the councils.
Hitherto Germany had not known the meaning of a living democracy, a real self-government of the masses. The state controlled public life; nor did so-called local autonomy afford a counterbalance. The great plan devised by Baron von Stein for setting up a middle-class state in Prussia had been curtailed and altered after Stein’s retirement. Not merely were the local authorities restricted in all they did by the government of the state, but, worst of all, the important posts in the local administrations were occupied by long-term officials. The men who filled honorary and unpaid posts in the German communal administration up to 1918 played a very small part in comparison with the professional civil servants.
Thus the masses of the German people were totally lacking in practical experience of managing their own affairs in a responsible manner. Bureaucratic control of public affairs rested upon a tradition of centuries. It appeared hardly conceivable that it should be vanquished by a revolutionary storm. True democracy, however, does not consist in registering votes on any particular question, but in the active self-government of the masses. The abolition of the bureaucracy was thus a question of life and death for German democracy.
The unique example of Russia and historical evolution now suddenly provided the German masses with the machinery of democratic self-government. The councils were elected from the workers themselves, and were in the closest connexion with their electors, who might at any time dismiss them. They received no fixed pay but only essential allowances for expenses. Their task was to control all public activities in the towns and to intervene wherever necessary. During the revolution only soldiers’ and workmen’s councils had at first been formed. Outside Bavaria the peasants’ councils were practically negligible. If government by the councils were to persist, the fact that the soldiers’ councils would in a short time be no more must be taken into account. For the army that had fought in the World War, and that numbered millions, must within a few weeks be demobilised. Instead of soldiers’ councils there would have to be councils formed by members of the trades and professions. Above all, peasants’ councils would have to be organised throughout Germany. What particular professions were or were not admitted to the organisation was a question of minor importance. If all those persons engaged in labour and in productive work were admitted to councils, then at least 90 per cent of all adults had the right to vote. The question as to whether persons who were not engaged in productive work should be debarred from the right to vote was quite unimportant, because it affected only a very small percentage of the population.
It would have been quite easy to organise the councils in the various parts of the country into provincial congresses, and from these to form a Reich congress of councils. The importance of the conception of government by the councils does not lie in the particular form it should take – whether the right to vote should be curtailed in this or that manner, and whether polling should take place in the factory or in the district where the voters reside. Its importance as well as its distinctive feature consists in the overcoming of the historic antithesis between executive and legislative by the substitution of self-government by a mature people for bureaucratic government of the people. In itself, government by councils signifies neither a terror nor the tyranny of a minority, nor any fantastic experiments in the domain of economics. It would even have been possible – and this proposal was frequently made during the German Revolution – to combine the councils in some way with the parliamentary system. A conciliar parliament, based upon the principle of the organisation of the producers among the population according to their trades, might have taken its place beside popular representation of the old type. There were plenty of ways in which it was possible to conceive of the spheres of competence of the two parliaments being brought into relation to one another.
The councils would not only have been faced with the task of assuring a true democracy to the masses of the German people. They might also have introduced important reforms in the economic sphere. After 9 November, when the magnitude of the political victory of Social Democracy was clear to the masses, a cry for socialisation was raised throughout the country. It is curious to note that the enthusiasm for socialism was not the cause but a result of the November Revolution. In considerable strata of the population, not only among workers, but also among intellectuals, etc, there was a feeling that the old capitalist order had lasted too long and that it must give place to a new form of economic life. It is true that there was considerable difference of opinion as to what was to be understood by socialisation. On one point, however, everyone was agreed: that any form of planned or communal economy could only be successful if it mobilised the productive masses for active cooperation. And the organisations by which planned or communal economy was to be put into force were the councils. The communal organisation of a branch of industry could most conveniently be assured by the cooperation of the councils of the individual factories or businesses. If socialisation were to be more than merely bureaucratic state management, it could not dispense with the councils.
What was the attitude of the individual Socialist parties and groups to the question of government by councils? The leaders of the Majority Socialists and the greater number of party officials entertained little hope of the councils. The historic ideal of German Social Democracy had been a parliamentary republic. The monarchical system had collapsed, and a German National Assembly was about to be elected on the widest possible suffrage. Moreover, the organs of self-government in all provinces and districts were to undergo democratic reform. This agreed with the long-standing demands of the party and seemed better than any new-fangled experiments. The Majority Socialist officials regarded government by councils as the arbitrary dictatorship of a minority over the majority of the nation. For they thought that the councils were supported only by the workers in heavy industry, and would exclude the remaining masses of the population.
It is undoubtedly true that at that time large groups of the German people, even of the working classes, did not come within the sphere of the councils. It is also true that in certain of the workmen’s and soldiers’ councils local adventurers appeared and set themselves up as little dictators. These, however, were drawbacks that might easily be overcome and which were not an inevitable accompaniment of the council system.
The Majority Socialist officials also rejected the idea of a Bolshevist tyranny and did not realise that councils and Bolshevism were in no sense identical. Finally, the Majority Socialist trade unionists felt slighted and disturbed by the activity of the councils among the workers. The German trade unions had for decades worked for the proletariat, and they now saw themselves being ousted by newcomers supported by the favour of the workers. The painstaking work of the trade unions could not be permitted to be endangered by the perilous desire of the workmen’s councils for experiment.
The hostile attitude of the Social Democratic Party towards the councils found its public embodiment in Ebert and Scheidemann. Nevertheless it would be wrong to attribute this mistake or many others of the revolutionary period to these two men personally. Many hundreds, indeed thousands, of respected party officials throughout Germany agreed with Ebert and Scheidemann. These men quite rightly recognised the faults and shortcomings displayed by certain workmen’s and soldiers’ councils. At the same time the conservative spirit of the party was so strong in them that they were incapable of taking an unbiased attitude to new phenomena in political and social life. Thus Majority Socialism as a party supported, as a matter of course, parliamentary democracy and the National Assembly. The councils were looked upon merely as a transitory symptom. They were a product of revolutionary disorder, and they must disappear again as quickly as possible once the National Assembly and other parliamentary-democratic bodies had come into being in Germany.
These Majority Socialist officials were genuinely desirous of suppressing private capitalism and of strengthening socialism at its expense. In the hopeless economic conditions which prevailed in Germany at that time, however, they were unwilling to make any economic experiments. They were anxious to avoid anything that might still further interfere with essential production. They wanted gradually and cautiously to transfer to public ownership only such industries as were, in the popular phrase, ripe for it.
The policy of the SPD in the question of the councils did not by any means receive the support of the entire party membership. There were, in particular, thousands of Majority Socialists on the workmen’s councils who were not prepared to take as narrow a view of their duties as the party leaders prescribed. Nevertheless they were all in favour of the election of a National Assembly. But they wished the councils to retain their competence beside the traditional parliament. They expected the councils to assist in safeguarding political democracy and in promoting nationalisation. The theoretical basis of the Majority Socialist Opposition, and especially of the Majority Socialist workmen’s councils, was supplied by the Sozialistischen Monatshefte. Cohen, Kaliski and other members of this old Revisionist group undoubtedly advocated the National Assembly just as did the party leaders. They also supported a cautious policy of nationalisation. But they demanded that throughout Germany chambers of labour should be formed as organisations for the producers united in the councils. The chambers of labour were to embody democratic economy alongside the political parliaments.
The party leaders of the USPD and those thinkers who were in sympathy with them recognised the importance of the councils. They also wished to establish some form of connexion between the councils and the National Assembly. They were as sceptical about the possibility of complete nationalisation as the Majority Socialists. They too would have been content to move carefully towards socialisation, beginning with the nationalisation of mines. It is clear that the basic ideas of the USPD party leaders were substantially the same as those of the opposition among the Majority Socialists. The most eminent German Socialist thinkers, men like Kautsky, Hilferding and Bernstein, were in sympathy with the conception of the German Revolution held by Haase and Dittmann. The attitude of Kurt Eisner, the Prime Minister of Bavaria, was in some respects peculiar. He was a particularly active supporter of an organic democracy evolving out of the councils. He would have preferred to abolish the old-style parliament, but at the same time did not desire speedy nationalisation, and refused absolutely to have anything to do with any methods of dictatorship on the Bolshevist model.
While the party leaders of the USPD were thus approaching the left wing of Majority Socialism, they lost the confidence of a part of their own members. In the months preceding the revolution, a radical left wing had been formed within the USPD, especially in Greater Berlin, which agreed with the fundamental ideas of the Spartacus Union. These were the so-called revolutionary chiefs (revolutionäre Obleute) in Berlin. They were the shop-stewards in heavy industry, especially the metal industry. They themselves, and the workmen who stood behind them, had been persuaded by the lessons of the Russian Revolution that a middle-class republic was not suitable to Germany, and that it was necessary to press on consistently to a socialist state. The Obleute had prepared an uprising – in Berlin during October 1918 in particular – the aim of which was to be the establishment of a socialist republic. But they had been surprised by the general mass movement that emanated from Kiel, and had thus been unable to prevent the establishment of a middle-class republic and a coalition government by the SPD and USPD. They now advocated a purely socialist state governed solely by the councils, and rejected the proposed National Assembly.
The Obleute were a powerful political factor in November 1918 because they controlled the heavy industries of Berlin. They also succeeded in seizing the leadership of the Executive Committee of the Greater Berlin soldiers’ and workmen’s councils, which had been elected by all the councils in Berlin. The Berlin Executive felt that it was the true representative of the idea underlying government by councils. It believed that its duty was to supervise even the Council of People’s Representatives in the name of the revolutionary proletariat. In the Berlin Executive the Majority Socialists, it is true, had a majority, but the Independents, who inclined towards the Obleute, took the intellectual lead, and the chairman, Richard Müller, was of their number. In addition to Müller, the most important friends of the Obleute were Däumig and Ledebour. The Obleute, their friends and adherents, were indeed officially members of the USPD, but they differed ideologically from their party leaders. They were altogether of the opposition, and did not support government by the people’s representatives. A number of radical workmen’s councils in the Reich sought to establish relations with the Berlin Executive, and adopted its standpoint in matters involving political principles.
The leaders of the Spartacus Union, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were under no illusions concerning the character of the German Revolution on 10 November, and during the following weeks. They realised that the great majority of the German people was satisfied for the time being with a middle-class democratic republic. A lengthy process of evolution would be needed before the majority of the German labouring classes would be in favour of a truly socialist state. Rosa Luxemburg was in favour of a Communist republic, but rejected any form of party dictatorship. The Spartacus Union could not assume power until the great majority of the German working classes agreed unequivocally with its policy. She rejected any form of coup d'état, or terrorist coercion of a majority. The leaders of the Spartacus Union wished to pursue definite agitation for a socialist state, to support a government by councils, and to oppose a National Assembly. But they would have nothing to do with political adventures. It is obvious that Rosa Luxemburg’s and Karl Liebknecht’s basic ideas were in the main identical with those of the Obleute. But the majority of their own party, of the Spartacus Union, in reality held quite different views.
During the war and in the early days of the revolution the Spartacus Union was composed of two completely different groups. On the one hand was a small body of thoroughgoing revolutionary Marxists. On the other was a greater number of radical utopians. There has always been an undercurrent and tributary stream of unbridled utopianism in the working classes. It appears above or remains under the surface in response to prevailing political and social conditions. The very poorest, most wretched and embittered strata of the working classes are the most inclined to utopianism. They refuse to accept any compromise with existing conditions. They do not wish to have anything to do with parliaments or trade unions, because ostensibly the proletariat would only be betrayed by them. They are sincerely opposed to any form of leadership or organisation, because they can see nothing but traitorous guile in every form of limitation. Their tactics consist in violent revolutionary action irrespective of contemporary material conditions and regardless of the momentary balance of political power. Experience has only too often shown how easily these utopians among the working classes, who are recruited mainly from among the unemployed, are demoralised and then go from one extreme to another. The utopian-radical workmen are the explosive matter in any proletarian or socialist movement. Their distrust, their impatience and their lack of restraint render them capable only of destruction and not of promoting any consistent revolutionary policy. Marx, Engels and Lenin always acted with ruthless severity against the utopian tendency and issued solemn warnings against any compromise with it.
When Rosa Luxemburg and her supporters set to work to form a Marxist revolutionary group in the German proletariat, they found that they only made very few disciples owing to the lack of any revolutionary tradition among the German working classes. Those who joined them were in many cases just such embittered utopians who supposed that the theories of the Spartacists were in agreement with their own wild ideas. In reality, the leaders of the Spartacist Union had nothing at all in common with the majority of their followers. When the leaders were prepared to compromise reasonably with existing conditions, their followers wanted to rush blindly on. When the leaders were reckoning with a lengthy period of development, their followers wanted to see results within a few days or weeks.
It is clear that the three parties of the socialist proletariat can really be grouped under six very various headings in November and December 1918. For convenience sake the Spartacus Union is reckoned as a separate party, although it did not really make the decisive break with the USPD until the end of December, taking up an independent position as the ‘German Communist Party’. To put the matter simply, there were in November right and left-wing Majority Socialists, right and left-wing Independents, right and left-wing Spartacists. Curiously enough, the left-wing Majority Socialists and the right-wing Independents were in close sympathy, as were also the left-wing Independents and the right-wing Spartacists. The threefold division of the proletariat which had arisen out of wartime policy simply did not fit in to the changed circumstances of the revolution and the republic. In place of the three existing outmoded parties, only two, according to political logic, should have existed. First, a large democratic Labour Party, which would operate within the framework of the middle-class state, and should aim at a long and careful process of socialisation. All the Majority Socialists and the right wing of the USPD might have belonged to this party, which would have been the government party, as a coalition of the followers of the six Representatives of the People. On the other side there would have stood the smaller opposition party of the convinced socialists. It might have been formed out of the left-wing Independents, that is, the Obleute and Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacists. This second party would have constituted a parliamentary opposition without indulging in any coups d'état or other political adventures. The small collection of utopians would have been outside both these parties. Without the authority of a Liebknecht or a Luxemburg they would have been politically insignificant, and it would have been for the police to keep them in order. These possibilities are not the product of subsequent armchair musings, but were seriously considered at the time by leading politicians. Rosa Luxemburg’s group negotiated with the Obleute in December over the formation of a new party, while the supporters of Dittmann and Haase sought union with Majority Socialism.
The fate that overtook the German Revolution was occasioned in no small degree by the fact that the necessary – indeed inevitable – disruption of the USPD and the Spartacus Union did not occur, or else took place much too late. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht had not the strength to shake off their utopians in good time; while Haase and Dittmann were incapable of achieving a separation between themselves and the Obleute. The fault lay in the general political backwardness of the German labour movement. A sentimental loyalty to alliances that had come into existence by chance was stronger than any recognition of political necessity. If the moderate Independents, under the leadership of Dittmann and Haase, had returned to the Majority Socialists, then there would have been a strong counterpoise to the right wing of the party. Thrown upon its own resources, the left wing of the SPD remained incapable of action. In the other camp, Dittmann and Haase were paralysed by the Obleute; and, finally, Luxemburg and Liebknecht became prisoners of their utopians. Combined action on the part of the socialist proletariat was only possible if an active part were taken by the millions of workers who stood midway between the parliamentarians opposed to the councils and the wild utopians of the left wing. The confused conditions made acute the danger that this great central mass of the socialist movement would be cut out altogether, and that the extreme right and the extreme left would engage in virulent conflict.
The Government of the People’s Representatives entered upon its office possessed of great power and authority, and the majority of the people greeted its advent with the liveliest hopes. Nevertheless, quite apart from difficulties inherent in the economic and international situation of Germany, the political backwardness of and the internal dissensions in the German labour movement were bound to cause serious anxiety. The difficulties might have been overcome if the People’s Representatives had seized the initiative by decisive action, and thereby bound the masses of the socialist proletariat and, in addition, the democratic middle classes of the German nation to them.
1. The actual events of the German Revolution of 1918-19 so far as the public heard about them from day to day are best followed in the leading Socialist daily papers in Berlin – the Vorwärts (Majority Socialist) and the Freiheit (USPD). Of the periodicals of that time the Sozialistischen Monatshefte provides the best material. Of great importance, moreover, are the printed minutes of the party congresses – the SPD congress at Weimar in 1919; the USPD congress in Berlin in 1919; the congress that founded the KPD which met from 30 December 1918 to 1 January 1919, and the KPD congress at Heidelberg in October 1919. The following narratives may be mentioned: Eduard Bernstein, Die deutsche Revolution (second edition, Berlin, 1922), written with abundant political experience and knowledge, but with a bias against the extreme left. Eugen Fischer-Baling, Volksgericht, die deutsche Revolution von 1918 als Erlebnis und Gedanke (Berlin, 1932). The author was secretary to the Reichstag Committee of Investigation into the causes of the German collapse. This gives the history of the revolution up to 11 August 1919. EO Volkmann, Revolution über Deutschland (Oldenburg, 1930). The author was first a major in the army and then an official in the Reich archives. He provides important new material which, however, in view of his militarist bias must be carefully used. His account ends with the Kapp Putsch. Arthur Rosenberg, Die Entstehung der deutschen Republik (second edition, Berlin, 1930, translated into English under the title The Birth of the German Republic, Oxford University Press, 1931), contains a narrative of the internal developments in Germany during the World War, and of the events leading up to the revolution. For the development of the Soviets, see Arthur Rosenberg, Geschichte des Bolshewismus (Berlin, 1933, translated into English under the title of A History of Bolshevism, Oxford University Press, 1934). There is much material, especially citation of sources, in Bergsträsser, Geschichte der Politischen Parteien in Deutschland (fourth edition, Mannheim, 1926). On the subject of the constitution: Hugo Preuss, Staat, Recht und Freiheit. Aus 40 Jahren deutscher Politik und Geschichte (Gesammelte Aufsätze, Tubingen, 1926).
2. USPD – Unabhängige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (German Independent Socialist Party, that is, the Independents).
3. SPD – Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (German Socialist Party; that is, the Majority Socialists).