Revolution was ignited in Germany 100 years ago by a mutiny of the North Sea Fleet at Kiel. Admirals decided to send it out on 30 October on a completely hopeless assault on the British Navy. Sailors organised to prevent the ships from leaving port. Their commanders responded by jailing more than 1,000 sailors. A mass solidarity movement was organised, led by women in the town, to defend the sailors, the workers of Kiel and nearby cities, and then the soldiers sent in to put down the revolt who ended up joining it.
On 3 November officers opened fire on an unarmed demonstration, killing eight. The next day the workers responded with a general strike which became a full blown insurrection. The imprisoned sailors were released, sailors raised the red flag over most ships and a workers’ and soldiers’ council was formed to take control of the city.
News of the revolt spread quickly. By 6 November the revolution had spread to the big cities of the northern coast; by 8 November to major centres across Germany, most notably Bavaria, where a republic based on workers’ soldiers’ and peasants’ councils had been declared.
In Berlin Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck of the revolutionary socialist Spartacist Group met with the revolutionary shop stewards to decide the date for the insurrection in the capital — they decided on 11 November, but by 8 November events had escalated so they called a general strike for 9 November.
The Spartacists issued a leaflet entitled “The Time For Action Has Arrived”:
The Time For Action Has Arrived!
Workers and soldiers!
Your hour has come. After long and silent suffering you have moved into action. It is no exaggeration to say that at this moment the eyes of the world are upon you, and you hold its fate in your hands.
Workers and soldiers! Now that the time for action has arrived, there can be no retreat. The same “Socialists” who for four years served as the government’s pimps have in recent weeks been stalling you day after day with promises of a “people’s government”, a parliamentary state, and other such rubbish. Now they are trying everything to weaken your struggle and pacify the movement…
Workers and soldiers! The next goals of your struggle must be:
1. Free all civilian and military prisoners.
2. End Germany’s division into separate states and abolish the royal dynasties.
3. Elect workers’ and soldiers’ councils. Elect delegates to them from all factories and military units.
4. Establish relations immediately with other German workers’ and soldiers’ councils.
5. Transfer all governmental power to representatives of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils.
6. Establish immediate contact with the international proletariat, especially with the Russian workers’ republic.
Workers and soldiers! Now prove that you are strong enough and that you are capable enough to wield power.
Long live the socialist republic!
Long live the International!
The Internationale Group (Spartacus Group)
Karl Liebknecht, Ernst Mayer, 8 November
By 8 November the Reich Chancellor Max von Baden could see that it was necessary to force the Kaiser to abdicate if he was to avoid full blown revolution. He asked SPD leader Friedrich Ebert, “If I manage to convince the Kaiser, do I have you on my side in the fight against the social revolution?” Ebert responded, “If the Kaiser does not abdicate, then social revolution is unavoidable. But I do not want it; no, I hate it like sin.”
The Kaiser still refused to abdicate. Max von Baden announced he had done anyway and appointed Ebert as chancellor.
Ebert made a pronouncement on 9 November entitled, “Leave the Streets!”:
Fellow citizens! The former Reich Chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, in agreement with all the ministers, has entrusted me with the responsibility of the Reich chancellorship. In consultation with the political parties I shall organise the new government.
The new government will be a people’s government. Its goal can only be to bring peace to the German people as quickly as possible and to secure the freedom they have won.
Fellow citizens! I call on you all for support in the difficult work that awaits us… Fellow citizens! I urgently appeal to you: leave the streets! Maintain law and order!
After making his pronouncement, Ebert went to the Reichstag building canteen for lunch. Another leading SPD deputy, Phillip Scheidemann, was also there. A revolutionary crowd had gathered outside and Scheidemann, afraid that Liebknecht was about to declare a socialist republic, went to the window and addressed the crowd:
The German people have won across the board. Everything old and rotten has collapsed; militarism is finished! The Hohenzollerns have abdicated! Reichstag Deputy Ebert has been proclaimed Reich chancellor… Our task now is to not allow this shining victory, this complete victory of the German people, to be sullied. Therefore, I urge you to see to it that there is no disruption of public order. We must be able to be proud of this day forever. Nothing must happen that could be held against us later. What we need now is law, order, and security. Long live the German republic!
Two hours later, Liebknecht declared a socialist republic amid a large crowd outside the royal palace:
Liebknecht Proclaims the Socialist Republic
The day of revolution has come. We have forced them to make peace. As of this moment peace is achieved. The old order is no more. The reign of the Hohenzollerns, who lived in this palace for centuries, is finished… Comrades, I proclaim the free German socialist republic, which will embrace all Germans, in which there will be no more servants, in which every honest worker will receive an honest wage for his labour. The reign of capitalism, which turned Europe into a swamp of blood, is broken…
But even if the old order has been turned down, we must not think that our task is finished. We must strain every nerve to build the workers’ and soldiers’ government and to create a new proletarian political system, a system of peace, of happiness, and of freedom for our German brothers and our brothers around the world. We stretch our hands out to them and call on them to complete the world revolution.
All of you who want to see a free socialist republic of Germany and the world revolution, raise your hands and take an oath.
All hands rose along with the call, “Long live the republic!” The red flag was raised on the Kaiser’s flagpole.
Later that day Ebert and Scheidemann released another declaration from the new government entitled, “Our Liberation Is Now Complete” and stressing that “property must be protected from arbitrary usurpation”. The battle for the soul of the revolution was on.
When news of the rising reached revolutionary Russia, the Bolsheviks immediately sent greetings — and warnings:
Soviet Appeal to the German Councils
Tsarkoe Selo, 11 November
To all German workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ councils:
We have heard by radio from Kiel that Germany’s workers, soldiers and sailors have taken power. The Russian Soviet government congratulates you with all our heart and joins you in mourning those who have fallen in the glorious struggle for the workers’ liberation… We also learned from these broadcasts that Prince Max von Baden still heads the government, and Ebert, who supported Wilhelm and the capitalists for four years, is to become Reich chancellor.
Workers, soldiers and sailors of Germany: so long as you tolerate a government consisting of princes, capitalists and Scheidemanns, then you do not really have power. The Scheidemanns will sell you out to capital… Soldiers and sailors, do not give up your arms, or the united capitalists will rout you. It is essential that you genuinely take power everywhere, arms in hand, and build a workers’, soldiers’, and sailors’ government headed by Liebknecht…
Long live international solidarity of workers and soldiers!
Long live the German Soviet republic!
The Russian workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ Soviet government.
A week later, on 18 November, Rosa Luxemburg issued a sober assessment of the revolution so far and a call to remain clear-eyed and focused on the goal of international revolution.
Rosa Luxemburg, Rote Fahne, 18 November
The revolution has begun. What we need now is not rejoicing over its accomplishments, not celebrations of victory over the prostrate foe, but rigorous self-criticism and strict marshalling of our strength so the work now begun can go forward…
What has been accomplished? The monarchy has been swept away. Supreme governmental power has been handed over to the workers’ and soldiers’ representatives. But the monarchy was never the real enemy. It was only the cover, the figurehead for imperialism. It was not the Hohenzollern who ignited the World War, spread fire to the four corners of the earth, and brought Germany to the brink of the abyss. Like all bourgeois governments, the monarchy was only an administrator for the ruling classes. The criminals who must be held responsible for the genocide are the imperialist bourgeoisie, the capitalist ruling class.
Abolition of capital’s domination and achievement of a socialist order: that and nothing less is the historic theme of the current revolution.
…All power to the toiling masses, and to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils; safeguard the revolution’s accomplishments from the enemies that lie in wait for us. These are the guidelines for all measures of the revolutionary government.
What is the present revolutionary government doing? It simply leaves the state as an administrative organism, from top to bottom, in the hands of yesterday’s supporters of Hohenzollern absolutism and tomorrow’s tools of the counterrevolution…
It does nothing to demolish the continuing power of capitalist class rule. It does everything to reassure the bourgeoisie, to preach the sacredness of private property, and to ensure the inviolability of capitalist property relations.
We have made a beginning. What remains is not in the hands of the petty creatures who want to block the flow of the revolution and stop the wheel of world history. World history’s order of the day calls for achieving the final goals of socialism. The German revolution is on the path of this guiding light. Step by step, through storm and stress, through struggle and anguish, misery and victory, the revolution will triumph. It must!
She was right to warn of the dangers the revolution faced, as they would find out over the next few weeks.
Socialist Review will return to the question of the German Revolution in the new year, beginning by looking in more detail at the role of Rosa Luxemburg, who, along with Karl Liebknecht, paid with her life for the defeat of the revolution.
Extracts sourced from John Riddell (ed), The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power. Documents 1918-1919 Preparing the Founding Congress (New York, 1986) and from marxists.org. Further reading: Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-23 (Bookmarks, 1998).