In November 1918, German workers overthrew the imperial government and ended the First World War. What began as a sailors’ revolt within weeks saw workers’ councils take charge of various German cities. A social democratic government took power amidst a situation of dual power. The revolution, however, would be defeated, or at least limited to the replacement of the old monarchist government by a parliamentary democracy, and a parliamentary democracy so flawed that it would within 15 years fall to the Nazis.
At the end of October 1918, the German admirals decided on a last-gasp operation, committing the fleet against the superior British forces. To crews, it looked like a suicide mission. When ordered to sea, sailors from Wilhelmshaven mutinied. Mass arrests were ordered, but the revolt spread. On 3 November, Karl Artelt, a member of the Independent Social Democratic Party [USPD, a semi-revolutionary party built by people who had been expelled from the old Social Democratic Party (SPD) for opposing World War One], was elected leader of the first sailors’ council, a committee representing 20,000 sailors. On 4 November, SPD politician Gustav Noske arrived in Kiel.
Since most sailors (and soldiers, and even workers) still saw the SPD as the big more-or-less party, Noske was elected chair of the newly formed Kiel Soldiers’ Council. But the SPD worked to control, deflect, and limit the revolution. Between 1 and 15 November, workers’ and soldiers’ councils took charge of many German cities, including Leipzig, Hamburg, Bremen, Chemnitz, Brunswick, Düsseldorf, Mülheim an der Ruhr, Kiel, Lübeck, Flensburg, Oldenburg, Cuxhaven, and Hanover.
Typically, workers’ mass strikes and demonstrations would break out, then soldiers would join the revolt, and then a joint workers’ and soldiers’ council would oust the old authorities. On 3 November officers fired on a massive, unarmed demonstration in Berlin, killing eight. The next day the Berlin workers responded with a general strike. The SPD Executive demanded the abdication of the Kaiser [Emperor].
In a private meeting with top army chief Wilhelm Groener, SPD leader Friedrich Ebert said: “If the Kaiser does not abdicate then social revolution is inevitable. But I will have nothing to do with it. I hate it like sin.” On 9 November 1918, hundreds of thousands of workers demonstrated on the streets. In Berlin, SPD leader Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed Germany a republic while the Kaiser was in Belgium, aiming to pre-empt Karl Liebknecht’s call for a socialist republic at the same demonstration.
Ebert became chancellor [equivalent of prime minister]. On 10 November 1918, a Council of People’s Delegates was formed, with three SPD members, led by Ebert, and three USPD. Ebert now led the government both by regular appointment from the old order, and as chief of the “People’s Delegates”. The SPD, by mobilising less-politically-aware soldiers to disrupt a workers’ and soldiers’ gathering, retained control of the Executive of Berlin’s workers’ and soldiers’ councils.
An all-German congress of workers’ councils, on 16-21 December 1918, had 292 SPD supporters among its 425 delegates, 94 USPD, and only 10 from the loose radical faction in the USPD led by Rosa Luxemburg, the Spartacus League.
It voted to cede power to a parliamentary National Assembly to be elected on 19 January. On 30 December, the Spartacists joined with others to form a Communist Party (KPD-S) aiming to lead a workers’ revolution in Germany as the Bolsheviks had done in Russia. But the KPD-S did not have the political self-education and training that the Bolsheviks had acquired over decades. It got caught up in a ragged and premature semi-attempt at a revolutionary uprising in Berlin, together with the “Revolutionary Shop Stewards” aligned with the USPD, in early January, and in the wake of that right-wing gangs sponsored by the SPD murdered Luxemburg and other revolutionary leaders.
The revolution was not over. Short-lived workers’ republics would be formed in Munich and in other cities in 1919. A general strike in March 1920 would smash a right-wing attempt at a coup and lead even conservative union leaders to talk of a “workers’ government”. Another revolutionary opportunity was missed in October 1923 before the capitalist order restabilised.
•Workers’ Liberty will be publishing a pamphlet telling the story, and including new translations of some of Luxemburg’s articles from 1918-9.