Chronicle of Germany 1918-19

Against the Current, No. 200, May/June 2019

William Smaldone

A People’s History of the German Revolution
By William A. Pelz
London: Pluto Press, 2018, $24 paperback.

THE FLOOD OF new books that followed the centennial of the Russian revolutions of February and October 1917 reflects the continued widespread interest in those world historical events.

Paradoxically, the popular focus on Russia has also tended to obscure the revolutions sweeping across Central Europe just one year later in the fall of 1918, destroying the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires and, for a brief time, appearing to open the way to the socialist transformation of much of Europe.

These upheavals have inspired relatively few new historical works. William A. Pelz’s study of the German Revolution, completed in 2017 just days before his death, is a welcome exception.

A committed socialist activist and model scholar-teacher, Pelz spent many years in the academic “trenches” teaching at Elgin Community College outside of Chicago and serving as the Director of the Institute of Working Class History. During his career he produced a number of works on the history of the European labor movement noted for their rigor and accessibility to general readers.

His first book, The Spartakusbund and the German Working Class Movement, appeared in 1989 to be followed over the next 25 years by works on Karl Marx, Wilhelm Liebknecht and Eugene Debs as well as general histories such as Against Capitalism: the European Left on the March (2007) and A People’s History of Modern Europe (2016). German Revolution represents a return to his earlier interest in the crucial events of 1918-1919.

Pelz’s goal in this “people’s history” is to critically examine the German Revolution from the perspective of average people, workers, rather than that of political or social elites. Using the lens of social history, he aims to challenge three commonly held notions about the 1918-1919 revolution: (1) that it was less a revolution and more of a collapse; (2) that it was a period of mere chaos before the normal progression of Germany into a republic, guided by Woodrow Wilson and the Western Allies and; (3) that revolutionary failure was solely caused by Social Democracy and the lack of a vanguard party. (xxi)

To tell the story, Pelz divides his work into eight chapters that trace the social and political development of the working class during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the coming of the First World War and its impact on German workers’ living and working conditions, the growing resistance to the war culminating in the popular upheaval of November 1918, and the factors that led to the radical left’s defeat in the winter and spring of 1918-1919.

Drawing on the most up-to-date secondary literature in English and German as well as a wide range of primary sources that give voice to everyday people, Pelz provides a compelling, eminently readable narrative that will interest anyone who picks up the book.

Workers’ Lives and Resistance

In his discussion of late 19th century German industrialization and the rise of the working class, Pelz draws a clear picture of workers’ variety of experiences in the factories and service industries of Germany’s burgeoning cities and towns. He shows that although standards of living improved, the process was slow, work was often dangerous, and most people endured long working hours and abysmal living conditions.

For many, life under the class-bound German monarchy offered little opportunity for upward mobility: the only way out was emigration. For those who stayed, however, there was also the possibility of resistance.

In a chapter on the rise of popular radicalism, Pelz argues that with notable exceptions, working-class people responded to their condition not by doubling down on religion or turning to conservative, liberal or anarchist political alternatives. Instead they turned to Social Democracy.

This was a mass social and political movement promising to replace hierarchical capitalism and the autocratic German state with an egalitarian social order in which people would have real democratic control over their lives. Pelz succinctly describes the rise of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its ancillary organizations ranging from trade unions to workers’ bicycle, singing and sport clubs along with libraries and mass circulation newspapers.

He shows not only how the movement gave millions of workers the chance to organize themselves politically, but equally important, how its organizations represented an alternative cultural milieu for people excluded from bourgeois institutions.

Pelz makes clear that not all socialist workers were united about how the movement should achieve its aims. While a minority hoped that class war would result in the capitalists and aristocrats being “mowed down to the last man,” most expected to achieve social and political equality and the creation of a socialist order via gradual reform. (26)

There are two problems with Pelz’s analysis. First, it should be emphasized that at no time did the SPD win the support of a majority of Germany’s working class. The movement attracted the support of millions, but even at its pre-war peak in 1912 it only won one-third of the electorate and some of its supporters were not “working class.”

For many workers, such as those who supported the popular Catholic Center Party, religious loyalties trumped class interests, and the Catholics also created a sizable trade union and cultural milieu of their own.

Others were put off by social democracy’s radical egalitarian goals, such as the emancipation of women, the end of discrimination on the basis of race, and its calls for the elimination of private property. They stuck with more conservative, liberal or nationalist parties.

Second, Pelz’s laudable focus on social history lacks a thorough analysis of the German Empire’s political context as well as an adequate discussion of the SPD’s internal politics in the pre-1914 period.

The decades of the party’s parliamentary political praxis under the empire, the emergence of social democracy’s trade union and party apparatus, and intense disputes among the movement’s radical and reformist factions had enormous influence on its wartime politics and the outlook of its leadership after the November 1918 Revolution.

Historian Mario Kessler’s brief introduction provides some background, but the book’s overall analysis would be stronger with more attention to the political sphere.

From War to Revolution

The First World War, of course, was crucial to the outbreak of the German Revolution. Pelz provides a compelling description of how suffering at the front and at home fueled antiwar opposition.

Drawing on the most recent scholarship, he shows how antiwar sentiment among workers was much more widespread at the war’s outbreak than traditional histories assert, how experience at the front and in the fleet soured many soldiers and sailors on the war, and how the declining supplies of food and fuel caused widespread unrest behind the lines.

Class tensions intensified as the black market allowed the rich to supplement their rations, while the poor went hungry. As a result, opposition to the war grew, especially among women who were increasingly drawn into production to replace drafted men and who were also responsible for feeding their families. Pelz reminds us that as resistance to the war intensified within Social Democracy and on the streets, women were at the forefront of the struggle.

By 1917 the war of attrition was grinding Germany down. Millions of casualties, widespread hunger and disease, and declining working conditions undermined morale and led to many forms of protest. Food riots, demonstrations and mass strikes, including in the armaments industries, became commonplace and the government responded with repression.

The majority of the SPD leadership, which had betrayed its internationalist principles in 1914 by supporting the war, answered intensifying criticism of its policy by expelling the opposition in January of 1917. The dissidents then organized a rival, antiwar Independent Social Democratic Party (the USPD). Its radical left wing — the Spartakusbund — led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, would later take its inspiration from the Bolshevik revolution and form the nucleus of the German Communist Party (KPD).

Pelz’s discussion of these political developments is adequate but he is at his best in describing the onset of the people’s revolution on the ground beginning with the sailors’ mutiny in the port city of Kiel in October of 1918.

Furious at maltreatment by their officers and with the war’s end clearly in sight, angry that the admiralty planned to preserve its “honor” in a last suicidal foray against the British fleet, sailors in Kiel rebelled against their superiors, won the support of the local garrison, and sparked a revolution that soon toppled the monarchy.

Across Germany armed sailors, soldiers and workers rose up against the local authorities, organized themselves into councils and took control of the country’s towns and cities. On November 9, with huge crowds filling the streets of Berlin, the Kaiser abdicated and fled to Holland.

But this “revolution from below” was only a part of the story. Well before the revolt in Kiel, Germany’s military leadership — which had effectively sidelined the civilian government and established a dictatorship — had concluded that the war was lost.

Rather than accept responsibility for the defeat, however, the generals urged the Kaiser to create a representative democracy by appointing a new government that for the first time would be responsible to parliament rather than to him. That government, which would also include the formerly excluded SPD, could then arrange for the surrender and bear responsibility for the defeat.

This “revolution from above” had been executed in October, but the new government, led by the liberal Prince Max of Baden, had been unable to negotiate an armistice as long as the Western Allies insisted on the Kaiser’s abdication.

The revolution from below resolved the issue. With the Kaiser’s departure, Prince Max also resigned as Chancellor and handed power to Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the SPD, the largest single party in parliament (the Reichstag).

Social Democracy, once despised, was now in power. The question was what would the party do. How would it relate to the workers’ councils and how would it seek to transform society along socialist lines?

SPD Against the Revolution

Like most historians, Pelz makes clear that the SPD leadership was not interested in carrying out a socialist revolution. Instead, Ebert and his colleagues aimed primarily to end the war, to establish a parliamentary system and to revive the economy.

They feared that radical inroads against private property (socialization of industry) or even a thorough purge of the state bureaucracy, the courts or the officer corps of reactionary elements could prolong the catastrophic Allied blockade or even invite an Allied invasion. They also worried that radicalization would fuel the spread of Bolshevism and unleash a civil war.

Determined not to become another Kerensky, Ebert decided to neutralize the more radical USPD by inviting it to join his Provisional Government. He then sidelined the revolutionary councils as centers of political power through promoting speedy elections to a National Assembly that would draft a new constitution.

Most importantly, Ebert cut a secret deal with the army officer corps in which he promised to protect its interests if the military backed his government. This pact, which targeted the radical left as a particularly dire threat, had disastrous consequences for the labor movement.

As politics became more polarized in the winter of 1918-1919, the USPD quit the coalition in December. Now in sole control, the SPD did not hesitate to use the army to bloodily suppress leftwing uprisings in Berlin, Bremen, Munich and elsewhere, murdering Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in the process.

Meanwhile the army did nothing to protect Ebert’s government from counterrevolution by the right. In March 1920 the army leadership refused to take action when a reactionary clique of officers and conservative politicians seized power in Berlin (the Kapp putsch). It was a nationwide general strike — one of the most successful in history — rather than the army that saved the new republic.

Pelz examines these developments from the perspective of workers in the streets. He shows how the revolutionary crowds, including large numbers of women, pushed for radical change in the months following the Kaiser’s fall. The workers’ and soldiers’ councils, for a moment, represented a real political alternative to the parliamentary vision of the SPD and its bourgeois democratic allies.

The Spartacists, along with some radical elements in the USPD, and the “revolutionary shop stewards” in the unions, were disorganized, lacked a coherent strategy, and did not have a unified, clear vision of what the revolutionary government should strive for. Despite that, their demands for the socialization of industry, the concentration of power in the workers’ councils, and a thorough purge of counterrevolutionary forces in the institutions of the state were pulling largely in the same direction.

Their efforts failed, Pelz argues, for a variety of reasons. External factors, such as the continuing Allied blockade and the very real threat of invasion should the revolution become radicalized, certainly influenced the SPD leadership’s attitude. But internal factors were more important.

Crucially, unlike the Kerensky provisional government in Russia, the SPD moved quickly to end an unpopular war that had undercut the legitimacy of the monarchy. At the same time, the Social Democrats did little to pursue real changes in gender and class relations in the country.

They pacified a society deeply rooted in patriarchal values by marginalizing women politically, sending them home from the factories and replacing them with returning soldiers. They resisted any radical purge of monarchists or nationalists from public institutions, left the aristocracy intact on its lands, and did not have a coherent policy to win peasant support.

Rather than socializing industry, the SPD and the trade union leaders cut deals with big industry to achieve some reforms — such as the eight-hour day and collective bargaining rights — but left the industrialists strong enough to fight another day to overturn those gains.

Finally, the Social Democratic government’s reliance on massive violence helped it retain power in the short run but it also irrevocably deepened the split in the labor movement and made the later struggle against fascism much more difficult.

A Vanguard Party?

Would a vanguard party modeled on that of the Bolsheviks have achieved better results? Pelz, quoting Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of the Bolshevik leadership’s monopoly on power in 1904, does not think so. Lenin’s party arose under Russian conditions and these were very different than those in Germany and it, too, failed to create an egalitarian and democratic socialism.

Pelz’s analysis here lacks certain elements that were also important for understanding why the revolution failed.

For example, while it is true that the SPD made promises to workers about socialist reforms that it did not keep, the evidence is also quite strong that most workers sympathetic to socialism favored the creation of a parliamentary republic because Social Democracy had favored such a development for over forty years.

Most saw the councils as temporary institutions to secure the revolution. Relatively few had any idea about what it would mean to establish a system based solely on the councils.

Pelz acknowledges that the workers were factionalized but he often wields terms like “the working class” much too cavalierly. More nuance in his analysis of what workers wanted and more discussion of what other social groups may have wanted in the revolution would have strengthened his analysis.

Further, Pelz gives little attention to the fact that in 1918 socialists of all stripes lacked  any clear models of what the transition to socialism would look like.

Workers’ councils — soviets — had appeared for the first time in the Russian Revolution of 1905 and then reemerged in the upheavals of 1917. Information coming out of Russia in 1918 was sparse, few had any idea of what “soviet power” meant, and the Russian Civil War — accompanied by the massive use of terror on both sides — did little to clarify matters.

The same lack of clarity dominated the debates about the “socialization” of industry. What did socialization actually mean? Should the state or the workers’ councils control industry? What should be the role of the trade unions? Where should the interests of consumers be represented?

If the revolution concentrates political and economic power in workers’ councils, then how will non-workers be incorporated into the polity? To what degree should the propertied classes be expropriated and excluded from participation in the new system? Would not excluding them raise the possibility of civil war?

These were among the many questions that divided the myriad leftist forces in 1918-1919 and Pelz could have done much more to elucidate them.

Nevertheless, Pelz’s people’s history is a valuable introduction to the German Revolution. He shows how average people participated in the overthrow of a mighty empire and proceeded to build something new, however flawed.

He makes a strong case that the SPD was the core of the “extreme center” which, along with its bourgeois democratic allies, succeeded in keeping the radical social revolution in check.

The Social Democrats did create a constitution that was among the most democratic in the world and also included the framework of a welfare state, but they failed to fundamentally alter Germany’s social and economic hierarchy. For that failure, they would pay a heavy price when the resurgent right would later mobilize to carry the Nazis to power.

May-June 2019, ATC 200