‘The Kaiser has abdicated . . . the German republic lives!’ – An Irishman’s Diary on the contested history of a key German speech
A German stamp commemorating Philipp Scheidemann’s speech of November 9th, 1918
The words sliced through Berlin’s November air, separating Germany’s past from its future. “Workers and soldiers! The German people have prevailed completely. The Kaiser has abdicated,” declared Philipp Scheidemann, a Social Democrat politician, perched perilously on the balustrade of a Reichstag balcony. “The old and rotten, the monarchy, has collapsed ... the German republic lives!”
With these words, generations of Germans learn in school, the Hohenzollern empire collapsed and was replaced by what became the Weimar republic.
A century on, much like the Easter Rising declaration in 1916, the only thing we know for sure about the official version of Scheidemann’s soaring speech of November 9th, 1918, is that it is a collage of fact and fiction.
A photograph purporting to show the address is taken from such a distance that the man purporting to be Scheidemann could be anyone. And the odd perspective of the cheering crowd below makes it looks like a photo montage.
There is no doubt about the events of November 1918 leading up to the address.
After four bitter years, a revolt by German sailors in Wilhelmshaven and Kiel started a chain reaction of revolts that collapsed the imperial war machine and exposed latent tensions between the German population and the conservative-aristocratic ruling classes.
With revolution spreading across Germany, crowds surged into the streets of Berlin on November 9th, full of morbid expectation.
With Kaiser Wilhelm in his war headquarters in Belgium, and the situation unravelling by the hour, the chancellor, Max von Baden, declared the emperor’s effective abdication in absentia.
Meanwhile in the Reichstag restaurant, word spread that Karl Liebknecht, the ex-SPD man turned Communist Party co-founder, was planning to declare a socialist republic from the empty Hohenzollern palace.
With a sense of urgency, Scheidemann stepped out onto the balcony of the Reichstag reading room and began to speak. There are several versions of what he said. One newspaper reported him as vowing to “bed down the victory achieved ... make sure this day is not soiled by anything”.
Journalist Ernst Friedegg telegraphed his left-wing Vienna newspaper that Scheidemann had noted the kaiser’s abdication. “The dynasty has toppled, a glorious victory for the German people”. Then the crowd were told, according to his version of Scheidemann’s speech, to “remain calm and avoid incidents”.
But it’s hard to fashion a legend around a speech like that: the revolution is here, now go home.
And so the embellishing began. A book published in 1919 contained a piece about the Reichstag speech, bylined “someone who was present”, containing an early reference to the collapse of the “rotten old order”.
The SPD, Scheidemann’s own party, were furious at his attempts to steal the limelight and, in a special report on the first anniversary, ignored him, saying “the old system simply collapsed and left nothing”.
It was 1920 before Philip Scheidemann was asked to deliver his speech again for posterity – to be recorded by phonographic expert Wilhelm Doegen, who also recorded voices of Irish and other soldiers in German PoW camps.
As the legend grows, he begins to incorporate lines about the “rotten old order”, not contained in contemporary reports and other embellishments.
As the 1920s rolled on, and opposition began to grow towards the Weimar Republic, Scheidemann’s determination to take credit for its declaration backfired. Nationalists and fascists stitched him into their “stab-in-the-back” theory that treachery – not military failure – precipitated the German defeat.
After surviving a prussic acid attack in 1922, along with other murder threats, he began to carry a gun.
In 1928, now aged 63, Scheidemann had a final hurrah by posing for a picture recreating his declaration. In a further farcical twist, the Reichstag window was unavailable, so the pictures were taken at the chancellery.
Five years later, when Hitler took power in 1933, Scheidemann fled and died in exile in Copenhagen in 1939.
A century on, historians still fight over what, exactly, Philipp Scheidemann said after lunch that day in November.
Most rate his speech as less the turning point he claimed and more a contemporary town-crier moment: announcing the SPD take-over of government responsibility and securing legitimacy for the new order by uniting the left behind him without scaring off suspicious conservatives.
With armed revolution in the streets, historian Lothar Machtan suggests Scheidemann’s original speech was less revolutionary and more “affirmative background music for a transfer of power taking place in full view”. Two hours later, on the same day, Berliners heard another declaration, of a “free socialist republic”, from the balcony of the Prussian palace. It would be another three decades before a socialist German state, and Karl Liebknecht, who made the declaration, would not live to see it.
By getting in two hours earlier, Scheidemann had already taken the wind from his sails to announce what would become the Weimar republic.