The fall of the Kaiser and the promise of revolution

November 9, 2018

November 9 marks the 100-year anniversary of the overthrow of Germany’s monarch, Wilhelm II. His abdication was the culmination of an uprising from below against war and poverty, similar to the Russian Revolution the year before — but this time in Europe’s biggest economic and military power. Axel Fair-Schulz tells the story.

ON NOVEMBER 9, 1918, Germany’s last emperor, Wilhelm II, abdicated — or at least that was the date of the official announcement by German Chancellor Prince Maximilian of Baden.

The last Kaiser actually relinquished his position three weeks later, on November 28, from Dutch exile, renouncing not only the imperial, but the Prussian throne. At that point, however, he and all the other ruling princely heads of state within the German empire were already largely part of the past.

Germany was in a state of mass upheaval, the population in revolt against four long years of the First World War and all the suffering it brought. The rebellion took hold among workers and among soldiers and sailors, and it spread with lightening speed.

On the other side, the monarchy took some time to collapse completely. The peculiar composition of imperial Germany had established 22 separate sovereign rulers — four of whom held the title of king (of Prussia, Bavaria, Württemberg and Saxony), six the title of grand duke, along with five dukes and seven sovereign princes.

Revolutionaries take to the streets of Berlin on November 9, 1918
Revolutionaries take to the streets of Berlin on November 9, 1918 (Wikimedia Commons)

Wilhelm II was the emperor of Germany and the Prussian king since 1888, and his Hohenzollern family had occupied the imperial throne since 1871, when the so-called Second Reich was created. His family’s claim to Prussian rule extended even further, going back to 1415.

Thus, Wilhelm’s resignation was a landmark event, bringing to a close a historical era. At the same time, though, the pressure to resign was an attempt to save as much of the old order as possible. As the German war novelist Theodor Plivier put it, it was only the Kaiser who left, the generals remained.

While renouncing the imperial throne for himself and his family, Wilhelm nevertheless nursed hopes, until his death in 1941, of becoming emperor again. In doing so, he forged various alliances with far-right wing groups — most infamously, the Nazis, who used him for propagandistic purposes with no intention of following through on his schemes.

The emperor’s resignation had been preceded by the abdication of the Bavarian King Ludwig III on November 7.

On that day, a large pro-peace demonstration drew over 60,000 people to the outskirts of Munich to commemorate the Russian Revolution of 1917. Two speakers from Germany’s main socialist party for decades, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), spoke to the crowd: the centrist politician Erhard Auer and the left-winger Kurt Eisner.

Afterward, Eisner and the blind peasant leader Ludwig Gandorfer led a large crowd into the city. The Bavarian monarchy crumbled unceremoniously and quickly, despite having been there since 1180.

The story goes that Ludwig III, taking his customary stroll through his “English garden,” ran into a worker, who politely lifted his hat, looked at the king and said, in a thick Bavarian accent: “Majesty, you should go home, revolution has broken out.” Apparently, the king followed this advice and departed Munich for one of his more remote castles in the countryside.

Meanwhile, the previous demonstration had highlighted the clear divisions among socialists.

Since before the turn of the century, the SPD had been the biggest and most developed party of the international socialist movement, with more than 1 million members by 1913. But with the beginning of the war, SPD representatives in Germany’s parliament voted to support their own side in the conflict. Revolutionary socialists such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht eventually split from the SPD.

THE COLLAPSE of imperial Germany and its network of monarchies was a product of Germany’s defeat in the First World War after four long years.

Having been engaged in a two-front war since 1914, Germany’s inevitable defeat had become increasingly clear to its military leadership, which was concentrated in the hands of two generals: Paul von Hindenburg and especially Erich Ludendorff.

Ludendorff, who had long pushed for expansionist war aims and opposed any attempts by German diplomats and politicians to explore a negotiated end to the First World War, concluded in the early fall of 1918 that all was lost, and Germany must enter peace negotiations.

Being a manipulative and calculating schemer, Ludendorff prepared for his own exit from power and advised the emperor, who by then was largely a figurehead, that Liberal and Social Democratic politicians should be brought into the government. The latter, Ludendorff hoped, would have to take up the unhappy responsibility of administering Germany’s surrender.

In this way, the Liberal Prince Max von Baden became the new imperial chancellor, and his cabinet included some SPD ministers. These ministers weren’t thrilled to join what one of them, Philipp Scheidemann, correctly called a “bankrupt company.” But party leader Friedrich Ebert insisted that it was the duty of Social Democrats to support the state in its hour of need.

Ludendorff and Hindenburg would later become key instigators of the poisonous so-called Dolchstoßlegende — the legend of the stab-in-the-back, which claimed that it was civilian leftist politicians who had betrayed Germany by opening peace negotiations while the military was still on its way to winning the war.

In reality, of course, the situation was just the opposite. With the military leadership responsible for the catastrophic state of affairs, the new cabinet, SPD ministers and all, was saddled with the impossible task of finding a way out that would not include major concessions to the allied victors.

AS LUDENDORFF and the military establishment made plans to wind down the war effort, they decided simultaneously to mobilize the German Navy for what could only be regarded as a suicide mission.

After having been confined for most of the war, because of a British blockade, to its bases in German ports, Germany’s battle fleet was now ordered to break through the well-defended British positions.

Victory was never a possibility, nor was it the objective. On the contrary, the generals hoped for the destruction of the fleet — in order to create a militaristic cult of martyrdom that could be tapped into after the war. The calculated drowning of sailors was to be exploited by commanding officers and military planners who were not in harm’s way.

However, the sailors, disillusioned by and tired of the war effort for some time, refused to play their assigned role, and instead engaged in acts of resistance and open mutiny.

On the battle cruiser Thuringia, a large segment of the crew barricaded themselves in the bow. The ship’s officers had to call in 250 naval infantry soldiers, threatening the rebellious crew, which only surrendered after several torpedo boats and submarine cannons targeted the Thuringia. Some 600 crewmen were imprisoned, together with 400 mutinous sailors from other ships.

The admiralty understood that it was about to lose control over the battle fleet and tried to regain some measure of control by sending different parts of the fleet to various ports.

Several of the ships were sent to the Baltic Sea harbor of Kiel in late October. This turned out to be a fateful decision, since it increased contact between rebellious sailors and the increasingly militant workers in the shipbuilding industry of Kiel.

On November 3, an antiwar demonstration took place on the outskirts of Kiel, consisting of about 3,000 sailors, snipes (boiler-room personnel) and soldiers, as well as male and female workers, to protest the action of the commanding admiral in imprisoning several sailors.

Demonstrators demanded their release and raised chants calling for the downfall of the emperor. As they marched to the city center, the antiwar demonstrators came under fire by a military patrol, resulting in eight dead and 29 wounded, including women and children.

At that point, things escalated toward an armed uprising. During the course of the night, sailors’ and soldiers’ councils formed, red flags were hoisted over several ships, and workers in factories around Kiel prepared for a general strike.

The “authorities” could only watch as power slipped from their hands. By the evening of November 4, Kiel was under revolutionary control.

Very quickly, the revolution spread from Kiel to Lübeck, Hamburg, Bremen, Cologne, Hanover, Munich and other cities. The Dukes of Braunschweig and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and the King of Bavaria were forced to abdicate.

On November 8, there was a mass demonstration in Dresden, the capital of Saxony. With soldiers’ and sailors’ councils spreading all over Germany and news of the victorious revolution reaching the court, Saxony’s King Friedrich Augustus III had to decide whether he should deploy the few troops still loyal to his monarchy.

Ultimately, he rejected the advice of his more militaristic counselors, saying that he did not want to continue the world war that was about to end on the outskirts of the royal palace. At around 8 p.m., he discreetly slipped out of the city palace, accompanied only by his daughter and a major general.

They hopped into a car that drove him to Moritzburg Palace in the countryside. From there, Augustus acknowledged the official transformation from a kingdom to a free state on November 10, and on November 13, he abdicated.

AS THE revolution arrived in Berlin, two different versions of Germany’s future emerged.

On November 9, revolutionary socialist Karl Liebknecht, speaking from the balcony of the old Imperial Palace, declared a free and socialist republic. Just two hours later, Philipp Scheidemann, the centrist SPD leader, declared a liberal parliamentary republic.

The differences between these two rival proclamations were not semantic, but illustrated fundamentally different propositions for the times ahead.

Liebknecht advocated a radical break, not only with the capitalist system that had just fueled a world war, but also with the institutions and traditions of authoritarian power in the state apparatus, the military and the judiciary.

Scheidemann, on the other hand, promoted a power-sharing compromise with those reactionary forces — which went hand in hand with plans to suppress all revolutionary uprisings with utmost force, including the torture and murder of revolutionaries.

The SPD leader Friedrich Ebert contacted Gen. Wilhelm Groener, the new head of the German military, and proposed an alliance based on mutual support. He hoped that by giving right-wing forces carte blanche to run their own affairs and to eradicate the revolutionary left, these forces could be integrated into the fledgling republic.

Infamously, on January 15, 1919, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were tortured and killed by right-wing military units known as the Freikorps — with the green light of several key SPD leaders.

The pact between Ebert and Groener was based on Ebert’s erroneous assumption that Germany’s conservative military establishment could be reconciled to parliamentary democracy — and would, in return for large concessions toward the generals, be loyal to the new republic.

The subsequent history of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) illustrates just the reverse. The military and business elites regarded their Social Democratic partners as temporary and were ultimately more comfortable with a right-wing dictatorship.

Already in 1920, during the so-called Kapp Putsch, the military establishment deserted the Social Democrats and their republic. In 1923, Ludendorff made a comeback to the world of politics — as a co-conspirator, together with Adolf Hitler, to overthrow the republic.

When Hitler came to power in January 1933, he was appointed chancellor by Paul von Hindenburg. Other leading politicians, such as conservative Franz von Papen and media tycoon Alfred Hugenberg, played key roles in this decision.

The conservative elites couldn’t be incorporated into even a limited democratic republic. Instead, they forged an alliance with the Nazis as capitalism entered deeper into crisis. Social Democratic leaders who had looked the other way when right-wing militias murdered revolutionary socialists would find themselves confined to the same concentration camps with communists after the Nazi seizure of power.

The abdication of the last German emperor, the culmination of the first stage of the German Revolution, marked a period of high hopes and great promise. Ordinary working people entered the stage of history in Germany, attempting to build a more just and truly democratic society.

While they succeeded in toppling the monarchical system, the generals, state bureaucrats, judiciary and police apparatus of the old regime survived, finding new allies among centrists. The defeat of the revolutionary left ended not in a liberal republic, but a far-right fascist dictatorship.

Further Reading

From the archives