After the ceasefire and separate peace with Russia, the Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL) was hoping in the spring of 1918 that it would now also be able to deliver the German Reich victory on the Western Front. Yet with the failure of Operation Michael in March marking the beginning of a large-scale but unsuccessful springtime offensive in France and the successful counteroffensive of the Entente, the military collapse of the Reich could not be prevented any longer. Not only was the army defeated, it was in the process of dissolving, as was the Reich along with it. Four years of world war had claimed up to 13 million casualties. The functional dictatorship of the OHL around Hindenburg and Ludendorff demanded the immediate initiation of ceasefire negotiations from the civil government on 29 September 29 1918.
The war was no longer winnable. The best possible outcome appeared to be negotiating bearable ceasefire conditions. Yet the military of course did not want to bear responsibility for the Reich’s downfall. The legend of the Dolchstoß der Heimat—of German civilians stabbing undefeated soldiers in the back—was brought into the world. US president Woodrow Wilson made ceasefire negotiations contingent upon democratization and especially upon the parliamentarization of the Reich, which at least on the surface would begin with the October Reforms following a regime change in Berlin. The ceasefire agreement, which amounted to the Reich’s public capitulation, was finally signed on 11 November and entered into effect immediately. This would soon shape the political culture of the Weimar Republic.
In the late summer of 1918, not a trace remained of the initially widespread war fever in Germany, the mythical “Spirit of 1914” or Augusterlebnis that supposedly predominated in the summer of 2014. The soldiers were not the only ones who were completely exhausted, demoralized, and war-weary. By that point, up to a million men fit to bear arms had absconded from their service on the front. The war was met with increasing rejection among the civilian population. Protest grew with the length of the war. Acute crises in food supplies and provisions became routine, particularly for workers and families of workers who had been required by the so-called “Hindenburg Law” to do piecework in the armaments manufacturing industry. But hunger was not the only driving force behind the widespread grassroots protests that kept surfacing. The protestors also took a political stance against the war. There had already been hunger protests mere months after the start of the war. Food riots are on record as happening in many German cities during the winter of 1915–1916. Struggles also took place in factories, often against the will of the (Majority) Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the trade unions. In April 1917, two hundred thousand metalworkers across the Empire went on strike. Over a million workers took part in the January 1918 strikes, to name just two examples. They demanded “peace and bread”. Yet the government was still able to suppress the strike movement.
On 24 October 1918, as the admirals tried to continue the war and torpedo the government’s ceasefire negotiations by ordering their fleets to set sail against the English naval forces, many sailors refused—in their eyes, they were being ordered off to a senseless death. A sailors’ uprising began and quickly took on its own dynamic, sweeping up the entire German Reich in revolution. This revolution reached Berlin on 9 November. The Kaiser was forced to abdicate. The monarchy was toppled. SPD leader Philipp Scheidemann declared a republic. Liebknecht proclaimed a socialist republic. The split in the workers’ movement, which had once been organized within the Social Democratic Party of Germany, further manifested itself in fundamentally different attitudes towards revolution and towards the way state, policy, economy, and society were to be shaped in the new Germany. Soldiers’ and Workers’ Councils were formed. The Council of People’s Deputies, comprised equally of members of the Majority Social Democratic Party and the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), took over the government. State and society were in a state of upheaval. Which path should be taken had not yet been decided.
The revolution that marked the end of World War I was long consigned to oblivion in Germany, playing merely a subordinate role in public consciousness. Yet as is correctly claimed, it resulted in the country’s first parliamentary democracy. The events 100 years ago are now debated in and for the broader public within the framework of bourgeois-democratic theories. This is not only appropriate in light of recent right-wing populist attempts to delegitimize them—to dismiss or even deny other possible paths to a democratic and solidary society would do an injustice to the openness of the historical situation in the fall of 1918.
- Axel Weipert, Salvador Oberhaus, Detlef Nakath, Bernd Hüttner (eds.):
"Maschine zur Brutalisierung der Welt"
Der Erste Weltkrieg - Deutungen und Haltungen 1914 bis heute, Münster 2017
- Arbeitsgruppe Zeitgeschichte und Geschichtspolitik der Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung (ed.):
Lange Linien der Gewalt
Ursachen, Deutungen und Folgen des Ersten Weltkrieges
Reihe Materialien, Berlin 2014
- Bernd Hütter (Hrsg.):
Die Arbeiterbewegung und der Erste Weltkrieg
Reihe Manuskripte, Vol.14, Berlin 2015
- Bernd Hüttner, Axel Weipert (Hrsg.):
Emanzipation und Enttäuschung
Perspektiven auf die Novemberrevolution 1918/19
Reihe Materialien, Berlin 2018
Translation by Adam Baltner