A People’s History of the German Revolution

Issue section: 

The German Revolution of 1918 to 1923 was one of the most important yet little known events of the 20th century. Had the workers emerged victorious it is likely that there would have been no Stalinism, no Hitler, no Second World War, no Holocaust and we would be living in a very different world today. The late Bill Pelz has written a brief and enjoyable history of the revolution up to 1920.

Pelz explains how the rapid development of capitalism in the newly unified German state created a working class with a high level of class consciousness.

Contrary to many previous accounts, the author shows that there was little enthusiasm among workers for war in August 1914. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) leadership was not under pressure from its base to vote for war credits. There were large demonstrations against the war across the country in July 1914.

Pelz argues that there was a defeatist mood in sections of the army even when things were going well. Gung-ho officers were mysteriously found dead in their tents. There were 429,000 German casualties at the Battle of the Somme and 337,000 at Verdun alone. This was enough to make even the most patriotic soldier cynical. There was also deep suffering at home due to severe food shortages.

The author provides a gripping account of the dramatic events of November 1918 as the sailors revolted, workers and soldiers’ councils spread across the country and the capitalist state tottered. He emphasises the role of ordinary working people, especially women as militant workers and revolutionary activists.

The author gives a list of reasons why the revolution failed, none of which were crucial in my opinion. The factor he stresses most is the failure of the SPD government to purge the state machine. But the state did not just need to be purged it needed to be smashed and replaced by a workers’ state based on the workers’ councils. The SPD leaders used every weapon at their disposal to stop this happening.

Pelz argues that the treachery of the SPD leadership and the absence of a revolutionary party were “not sufficient to explain events”. He dismisses the latter view with the statement that a Leninist party produced Stalin. But this argument is anachronistic and circular, as the rise of Stalin was largely due to the defeat of the German Revolution.

The German working class was in a better position in 1918 than the Russian working class had been the year before. It was the majority of the population, had huge economic power and a high level of class consciousness. But as Trotsky put it looking back on the German events in 1924, “Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer.”