When my cohort studied the German revolution of 1918-1919 at Trinity in the late 1980s, the prevailing view was that the revolutionaries had been too German and not sufficiently revolutionary. Their failure to emasculate the “old elites” such as army, aristocracy, bureaucracy and big business, we learned, had stunted the young republic from birth. Worse, the incomplete revolution had paved the way for the rise of Nazism a decade later.
A great deal of research has been done since then, but the negative image has persisted. As recently as 2008, Oskar Lafontaine, at that time chairman of the radical left German party Die Linke, repeated that the “betrayal” of 1918 had “set the course for the disastrous history of the Weimar Republic”. It is therefore a breath of fresh air to read Robert Gerwarth’s authoritative new account, which is the latest product of a vibrant Dublin research hub on modern European history.
The author demonstrates that the events of 1918-1919 were indeed a revolution. Defeated in the first World War, the German Reich collapsed, the kaiser went into exile, and a constitutional government took over. Fundamental socioeconomic change did take place, exemplified by the state-mediated Stinnes-Legien agreement that gave organised labour collective bargaining rights with employers. Women gained the right to vote, the first to do so in a large western country.
Gerwarth, who is also the author of The Vanquished, an acclaimed history of the immediate postwar European crisis, situates his story in the wider international context. To the east was the threat of Soviet communism, which regarded the revolutionising of Germany as central to its own survival. To the west was the Franco-British determination to settle the “German Question” and the liberal crusading of US president Woodrow Wilson.
As the author shows, Germans expected much from Wilson and were deeply disappointed in the peace settlement imposed on them. It was, in fact, the huge burdens placed by the victors under the Versailles Treaty, reparations and territorial losses, which nearly destroyed the Republic at birth (and later gave its enemies a stick to beat it with). That it did not, at least until 1933, is a tribute to Germany’s democratic leadership.
The hero of this account is the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which managed the fraught transition from the monarchy, saw off threats from the extreme right and extreme left, and stabilised both politics and economy.
Conservative elements, many of whom believed that Germany had lost the war to a “stab in the back” by Jews and the left, repeatedly sought to seize control prior to reasserting the country’s great power status. Extreme leftists, indifferent to their lack of electoral support – the majority had no right to be wrong – made several attempts to seize power at the centre in Berlin or to set up radical regimes in the regions. All this while the western powers circled warily and even continued the blockade for some time after the end of hostilities to keep up the pressure.
To be sure, the details were often not pretty, especially the collaboration with often murderous right-wing paramilitaries in putting down radical left-wing insurrections. The murders of the iconic Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were certainly a low point. Gerwarth is particularly good on the toxic masculinity which underpinned these and numerous other right-wing killings by frustrated “Free Corps” paramilitaries.
But what, one might ask, was the alternative? If the SPD had failed to deal with these challenges, the result would have been at best chaos, or an even bigger right-wing backlash, or a Russian revolution-style trauma, or western military intervention, or a combination of all these. Gerwarth is surely right to end his brief epilogue, which takes the story up to the mid-1920s, with the reminder that the future of the Weimar Republic “was wide open”.
This is a compact, lean book, about a third of which is the copious annotation backing up the author’s claims. He still finds space, though, for some remarkable pen portraits of the principal characters, and well as telling anecdotes. My favourite was the scene of the senior SPD leader, and later chancellor, Hermann Müller, who had his papers checked by revolutionary sailors during the revolution. They pointed out on returning his passport that it was several months out of date.
“Is it even imaginable,” Müller reflected, “that in another country the night after the start of a revolution, a revolutionary would be concerned about a passport renewal?”
If one were to criticise this book, it might be for its relative lack of attention to a subject which greatly exercised the protagonists at the time, namely German particularism and even separatism. There was real possibility that the Reich would fragment into its constituent parts.
This was an especially acute question in Bavaria, where historic resentment against Berlin was aggravated by the increase in centralisation which the Republic represented by comparison with the more federal monarchy. It was not least among the achievements of the young Republic’s leaders that they managed to keep the country together in the face of these challenges.
It is also worth asking why the Weimar Republic is now experiencing such a renaissance in Germany. Unlike most previous such exercises, last year’s successful exhibition in the German Historical Museum in Berlin pointedly did not draw the line from the Republic to Hitler; the Third Reich was very much offstage. As the author quite rightly says, shifting views of historical events “tell us more about changing political cultures in Germany than about the revolution itself”. This was certainly true of the rediscovery and critique of the revolution during its 50th anniversary in 1968 and 1969.
One wonders then what the fair wind for Weimar tells us about the federal republic today? Does it perhaps reflect a greater confidence in its own past and “democratic potential”?
This is, of course, a question the author is not obliged to answer. For now, Gerwarth has already done us enough service by rescuing the Weimar Republic from what EP Thompson, in another context, called “the enormous condescension of posterity”.