November 1918: The Unfinished Revolution

9 Novem­ber 2022

Matthew Read

9 Novem­ber 1918: Revo­lu­tio­na­ries take to the streets of Berlin. 

On 9 Novem­ber 1918, the German Empire was topp­led after mass upri­sings brought the monar­chy and First World War to an end. Trig­ge­red by a naval mutiny in nort­hern Germany, the Novem­ber Revo­lu­tion spread rapidly throug­hout the coun­try, as soldiers and workers formed revo­lu­tio­nary coun­cils to estab­lish their own organs of power.


The achie­ve­ments and limi­ta­ti­ons of the Novem­ber Revo­lu­tion greatly shaped the deve­lo­p­ment of the German state in the fateful deca­des of the 1920s and 1930s, when fascism emer­ged from within the Weimar Repu­blic. Analy­sing the histo­ri­cal lessons of the Novem­ber Revo­lu­tion has also been a crucial point of conten­tion within the German workers’ move­ment, for it raises the ques­tion of the working class’s rela­tion to state power. Is the state to be unders­tood as a neutral insti­tu­tion that opera­tes above clas­ses in society? Or is it the instru­ment of a parti­cu­lar class? Can a workers’ party enter the exis­ting state and bring about socia­lism through parlia­men­tary reform? Or is it neces­sary to first destroy the exis­ting state before erec­ting a new appa­ra­tus that can build socia­lism? These ques­ti­ons were alre­ady at the centre of deba­tes within German social demo­cracy before 1918 and they again came to the fore in the period follo­wing the Second World War when the fate of socia­lism in Europe was deci­ded. To mark the anni­ver­sary, this article briefly exami­nes both the imme­diate conse­quen­ces and the long-term influen­ces that the revo­lu­tion had on social demo­cra­tic and commu­nist forces in Germany.

The declaration of two republics

At noon on 9 Novem­ber 1918, the abdi­ca­tion of the emperor Kaiser Wilhelm was announ­ced to the German public. Within hours, two compe­ting poli­ti­cal forces in Berlin declared repu­blics to replace the empire. The first was proclai­med by the refor­mist leader­ship of the Social Demo­cra­tic Party of Germany (SPD), who was deter­mi­ned to prevent the mass upri­sing from escala­ting into a social revo­lu­tion, as had happened a year prior in Russia. The second was proclai­med by Karl Lieb­knecht, leader of the Spart­a­cist League, a revo­lu­tio­nary and anti-war breaka­way from the SPD. Lieb­knecht expli­citly declared a socia­list repu­blic that would repre­sent “a new state order of the prole­ta­riat, an order of peace”. In the weeks that follo­wed, these two forces strug­g­led to deter­mine the fate of the coun­try, with the SPD attemp­ting to main­tain parlia­men­tary order and the Spart­a­cist League – which merged with various smal­ler revo­lu­tio­nary groups in Decem­ber 1918 to form the Commu­nist Party of Germany (KPD) – cham­pio­ning the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils.

Left: SPD leader Phil­ipp Schei­de­mann proclaims a repu­blic on 9 Novem­ber 1918. Right: Karl Lieb­knecht at a demons­tra­tion in Decem­ber 1918, seve­ral weeks after proclai­ming a socia­list republic.

To coun­ter the revo­lu­tio­nary poten­tial of the upri­sing, the SPD leader­ship swiftly ente­red into agree­ments with the mili­ta­rist Junker class (the landed aris­to­cracy), promi­sing that the old social order and mili­tary appa­ra­tus would be preser­ved under a new repu­bli­can facade. In return, the mili­tary agreed help to crush the revo­lu­tio­nary coun­cils throug­hout the former empire.


Far-right para­mi­li­tary troops began coor­di­na­ting with the SPD govern­ment in Berlin to arrest and execute thou­sands of revo­lu­tio­na­ries, inclu­ding Lieb­knecht and Rosa Luxem­burg who were killed in Janu­ary 1919. With the commu­nists and socia­lists disper­sed and leader­less, the Novem­ber Revo­lu­tion was broken off and the SPD was able to cement its vision for the coun­try in the new “Weimar Repu­blic”: the working class was to achieve socia­lism by ente­ring the bour­geois state and fight­ing for reforms within the parlia­ment, not by erec­ting its own organs of state power as the Bols­he­viks had advo­ca­ted in Russia.

The consti­tu­tion of the Weimar Repu­blic went only so far as to secure formal poli­ti­cal demo­cracy. In the name of the “sepa­ra­tion of powers”, legis­la­tion was to be demo­cra­ti­cally legi­ti­mi­sed through an elec­ted cham­ber, but the admi­nis­tra­tive and judi­cial bran­ches of govern­ment remained in the hand of the old impe­rial bureau­cracy, free from popu­lar scru­tiny. At the same time, reac­tion­ary forces were able to rescue their posi­ti­ons of econo­mic and social domi­nance by gran­ting certain limi­ted conces­si­ons to the masses, such as the 8‑hour work­day, the intro­duc­tion of workers’ coun­cils in facto­ries, and the right to vote for women. The magna­tes ther­eby retai­ned control over the indus­tries, the landed nobi­lity preser­ved their massive estates, and the impe­rial mili­tary command main­tai­ned its status as “a state within the state”.


Thus, while the Novem­ber Revo­lu­tion of 1918/19 swept away the monar­chy and estab­lished a consti­tu­tio­nal repu­blic, it ulti­m­ately failed to fully demo­cra­tize German society. The econo­mic rela­ti­ons that had given rise to impe­ria­lism were further entren­ched in the new repu­blic and the impe­rial state appa­ra­tus remained largely intact. As a conse­quence, the forces that had set the First World War in motion in order to violently secure a leading posi­tion for German mono­po­lies in Europe still held key posi­ti­ons from which they could influence subse­quent developments.


Indeed, in the decade that follo­wed, German impe­ria­lism re-emer­ged in an even more terro­ristic and dicta­to­rial form. Finance capi­tal and the reac­tion­ary mili­tary command had resen­ted both the demo­cra­tic gains achie­ved by the Novem­ber Revo­lu­tion and the loss of the war, which had brought with it signi­fi­cant terri­to­rial losses along­side puni­tive measu­res under the Treaty of Versailles. From the earliest days of the Weimar era, these forces fought to roll back workers’ rights (such as rein­tro­du­cing the 10-hour work­day in 1923) and “regain” what had been lost after 1918. To this end, they began support­ing and mobi­li­sing fascist groups, inclu­ding Hitler’s Nazi party.


After being hois­ted to power in 1933, the Nazis swept away all demo­cra­tic gains from the previous deca­des and deci­ma­ted the working-class parties at home – both the SPD and the KPD were banned, and its cadres sent to concen­tra­tion camps – before embar­king on a war of anni­hi­la­tion abroad. The fascists initia­ted the Second World War to secure what the First had failed to, namely, a domi­nant role for German capi­tal worldwide.

Learning from past mistakes

For many within the SPD, the Weimar Republic’s faci­li­ta­tion of fascism and the subse­quent horrors of Nazi rule served as a stark lesson that the revo­lu­tion could not settle for half measu­res: unless reac­tion­ary forces were comple­tely depri­ved of econo­mic and poli­ti­cal power, they would be able to restore their rule. Otto Grote­wohl, who had served as a member of parlia­ment for the SPD and state-level minis­ter throug­hout the Weimar years, came to lead a faction of social demo­crats that saw the neces­sity of a rigo­rous demo­cra­tis­a­tion of post-war society in Germany:


“Today, as then, leading repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of social demo­cracy overe­sti­mate the signi­fi­cance of formal demo­cracy, over­loo­king the fact that as long as class rela­ti­ons have not been chan­ged, as long as power rela­ti­ons in state and society have not been thoroughly trans­for­med, demo­cracy is only a screen for the old reac­tion­ary powers, to be tossed aside as soon as mono­poly capi­ta­lists and Junkers think the time is ripe”.[1]

April 1946: Otto Grote­wohl, who would later become the first premier of the German Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic, addres­ses his comra­des at a party conference.

After the fascist Wehr­macht capi­tu­la­ted to the Allied powers in May 1945, Germany was divi­ded into four occu­pa­tion zones. In the Soviet zone, the anti-fascist parties that had been banned by the Nazis were permit­ted to reor­ga­nize. A group of SPD leaders formed an Execu­tive Commit­tee in Berlin and published a decla­ra­tion on 15 June stating: “Above all, we want to lead the struggle for the restruc­tu­ring [of Germany] on the basis of the orga­ni­sa­tio­nal unity of the German working class! We see in this a moral repa­ra­tion for poli­ti­cal mista­kes of the past, in order to give the young gene­ra­tion a united poli­ti­cal orga­ni­sa­tion of struggle”. By reuni­fy­ing the workers’ move­ment upon the basis of revo­lu­tio­nary Marxism, the mista­kes of 1918/19 were to be avoided: those who had fuel­led the war were to be expro­pria­ted and new, demo­cra­tic state insti­tu­ti­ons were to be erected.


The SPD and KPD in the Soviet zone began months of debate on the ques­tion of forming a unified working-class party. A central aspect in this debate was the criti­cal reflec­tion on the role of the SPD leader­ship during the Novem­ber Revo­lu­tion. Grote­wohl, as chair­man of the SPD in the Soviet zone, was a key figure to initiate this process of rethin­king in his party. He stron­gly criti­cised the bour­geois concep­tion of the state as a neutral insti­tu­tion, as some­thing that opera­tes above clas­ses rather than as an instru­ment of a parti­cu­lar class:


“For the [Novem­ber] Revo­lu­tion this [neutral under­stan­ding of the state] had to have fatal effects, for its logi­cal conse­quence was not struggle against the state, not smas­hing the state, but instead the subju­ga­tion of the working class to the state under the pretext of ‘utili­sing’ it and safe­guar­ding ‘peace and order’. Since the ques­tion of smas­hing the old state was not posed from the begin­ning as the central ques­tion of the revo­lu­tion, the struggle was lost before it had even begun”.[2]


Grote­wohl concluded that the divi­sion of the working class and the refor­mist atti­tu­des of the social demo­cra­tic leader­ship were largely respon­si­ble for the fail­ure of the Novem­ber Revo­lu­tion. In April 1946, the SPD and KPD merged in the Soviet zone to form the Socia­list Unity Party (SED). This process deve­lo­ped differ­ently throug­hout Germany, as the will to merge was strong in some regio­nal party groups (such as in Thurin­gia) and parti­cu­larly divi­ded in others (such as in Berlin).[3] The faction of the SPD that rejec­ted the Execu­tive Committee’s analy­sis gathe­red in West Germany. They vehe­men­tly held on to refor­mist noti­ons of reaching socia­lism through bour­geois demo­cracy and denoun­ced the SED.[4]

Finishing what had been started

In post-war Eastern Germany, a coali­tion bloc was formed amongst the social demo­crats, commu­nists, conser­va­ti­ves (CDU) and libe­rals (LDPD) to carry out an “anti­fa­scist-demo­cra­tic trans­for­ma­tion”. Toge­ther with the Soviet mili­tary admi­nis­tra­tion, this “anti­fa­scist-demo­cra­tic bloc” orga­nised a land reform to both restore the supply of food and break the power of the Junker class. Key indus­tries were natio­na­li­zed to divest “war crimi­nals and those inte­res­ted in war” of econo­mic power. The tenured civil service caste was abolished, and enti­rely new struc­tures were estab­lished in the admi­nis­tra­tive, police, justice, and school systems. Compre­hen­sive social insu­rance and health care systems were also crea­ted along­side workers’ and peasants’ colleges to dismantle the class barriers that had long plagued German society.

1 May 1946: Inter­na­tio­nal Workers’ Day cele­bra­ti­ons in Berlin seve­ral weeks after the foun­ding of the SED. 

The anti­fa­scist-demo­cra­tic bloc and the Soviet mili­tary admi­nis­tra­tion in East Germany thus comple­ted the task that the Novem­ber Revo­lu­tion had begun: the total elimi­na­tion of the econo­mic roots of German impe­ria­lism and the demo­cra­tis­a­tion of society. This process took place under an incre­asingly tense inter­na­tio­nal situa­tion, as the tempo­rary war alli­ance between the Western powers and the Soviet Union dissol­ved, and the global struggle between impe­ria­lism and socia­lism resu­med on all fronts. In the face of post-war destruc­tion, massive repa­ra­ti­ons payments, and a remi­li­ta­ri­zing West German state, the trans­for­ma­tion in East Germany was a diffi­cult and at times contra­dic­tory process, but its comple­tion marked the culmi­na­tion point of the revo­lu­tio­nary process that had erupted 30 years prior, in Novem­ber 1918. The German Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic (DDR), which was foun­ded in East Germany in Octo­ber 1949, embo­died a new kind of state – one that was based not on the capi­ta­list and aris­to­cra­tic clas­ses, but on worker and peasant power.

[1] Otto Grote­wohl: Thirty Years Later, Dietz-Verlag, Berlin, 1948, p. 10


[2] Otto Grote­wohl: Thirty Years Later, Dietz-Verlag, Berlin, 1948, p. 128


[3] The history of this merger has been parti­cu­larly contro­ver­sial, both within the commu­nist move­ment and libe­ral histo­rio­gra­phy. The purpose of this article is not to examine the unifi­ca­tion of the two parties, but the IF DDR plans to return to the topic along­side the broa­der deve­lo­p­ment of the SED in future texts.


[4] By 1959, the SPD in West Germany had offi­ci­ally renoun­ced Marxism and commit­ted itself to reforming capi­ta­lism rather than repla­cing it.

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