To MOST MEN in the victorious Allied lands of the West, the proclamation of the Republic in Berlin on November 9, 1918, had appeared to mark the dawn of a new day for the German people and their nation. Woodrow Wilson, in the exchange of notes which led to the armistice, had pressed for the abolition of the Hohenzollern militarist autocracy, and the Germans had seemingly obliged him, although reluctantly. The Kaiser had been forced to abdicate and to flee; the monarchy was dissolved, all the dynasties in Germany were quickly done away with, and republican government was proclaimed.
But proclaimed by accident! On the afternoon of November 9, the so-called Majority Social Democrats under the leadership of Friedrich Ebert and Philipp Scheidemann met in the Reichstag in Berlin following the resignation of the Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden. They were sorely puzzled as to what to do. Prince Max had just announced the abdication of the Kaiser. Ebert, a saddler by trade, thought that one of Wilhelm’s sons—anyone except the dissolute Crown Prince—might succeed him, for he favored a constitutional monarchy on the British pattern. Ebert, though he led the Socialists, abhorred social revolution. “I hate it like sin,” he had once declared.
But revolution was in the air in Berlin. The capital was paralyzed by a general strike. Down the broad Unter den Linden, a few blocks from the Reichstag, the Spartacists, led by the Left Socialists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were preparing from their citadel in the Kaiser’s palace to proclaim a soviet republic. When word of this reached the Socialists in the Reichstag they were consternated. Something had to be done at once to forestall the Spartacists. Scheidemann thought of something. Without consulting his comrades he dashed to the window overlooking the Koenigsplatz, where a great throng had gathered, stuck his head out and on his own, as if the idea had just popped into his head, proclaimed the Republic! The saddle maker Ebert was furious. He had hoped, somehow, to save the Hohenzollern monarchy.
Thus was the German Republic born, as if by a fluke. If the Socialists themselves were not staunch republicans it could hardly be expected that the conservatives would be. But the latter had abdicated their responsibility. They and the Army leaders, Ludendorff and Hindenburg, had pushed political power into the hands of the reluctant Social Democrats. In doing so they managed also to place on the shoulders of these democratic working-class leaders apparent responsibility for signing the surrender and ultimately the peace treaty, thus laying on them the blame for Germany’s defeat and for whatever suffering a lost war and a dictated peace might bring upon the German people. This was a shabby trick, one which the merest child would be expected to see through, but in Germany it worked. It doomed the Republic from the start.
Perhaps it need not have. In November 1918 the Social Democrats, holding absolute power, might have quickly laid the foundation for a lasting democratic Republic. But to have done so they would have had to suppress permanently, or at least curb permanently, the forces which had propped up the Hohenzollern Empire and which would not loyally accept a democratic Germany: the feudal Junker landlords and other upper castes, the magnates who ruled over the great industrial cartels, the roving condottieri of the free corps, the ranking officials of the imperial civil service and, above all, the military caste and the members of the General Staff. They would have had to break up many of the great estates, which were wasteful and uneconomic, and the industrial monopolies and cartels, and clean out the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the police, the universities and the Army of all who would not loyally and honestly serve the new democratic regime.
This the Social Democrats, who were mostly well-meaning trade-unionists with the same habit of bowing to old, established authority which was ingrained in Germans of other classes, could not bring themselves to do. Instead they began by abdicating their authority to the force which had always been dominant in modern Germany, the Army. For though it had been defeated on the battlefield the Army still had hopes of maintaining itself at home and of defeating the revolution. To achieve these ends it moved swiftly and boldly.
On the night of November 9, 1918, a few hours after the Republic had been “proclaimed,” a telephone rang in the study of Ebert in the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. It was a very special telephone, for it was linked with Supreme Headquarters at Spa by a private and secret line. Ebert was alone. He picked up the telephone. “Groener speaking,” a voice said. The former saddle maker, still bewildered by the day’s events which had suddenly thrust into his unwilling hands whatever political power remained in a crumbling Germany, was impressed. General Wilhelm Groener was the successor of Ludendorff as First Quartermaster General. Earlier on that very day at Spa it was he who, when Field Marshal von Hindenburg faltered, had bluntly informed the Kaiser that he no longer commanded the loyalty of his troops and must go—a brave act for which the military caste never forgave him. Ebert and Groener had developed a bond of mutual respect since 1916, when the General, then in charge of war production, had worked closely with the Socialist leader. Early in November—a few days before—they had conferred in Berlin on how to save the monarchy and the Fatherland.
Now at the Fatherland’s lowest moment a secret telephone line brought them together. Then and there the Socialist leader and the second-in-command of the German Army made a pact which, though it would not be publicly known for many years, was to determine the nation’s fate. Ebert agreed to put down anarchy and Bolshevism and maintain the Army in all its tradition. Groener thereupon pledged the support of the Army in helping the new government establish itself and carry out its aims.
“Will the Field Marshal (Hindenburg) retain the command?” Ebert asked.
General Groener replied that he would.
“Convey to the Field Marshal the thanks of the government,” Ebert replied.1
The German Army was saved, but the Republic, on the very day of its birth, was lost. The generals, with the honorable exception of Groener himself and but few others, would never serve it loyally. In the end, led by Hindenburg, they betrayed it to the Nazis.
At the moment, to be sure, the specter of what had just happened in Russia haunted the minds of Ebert and his fellow Socialists. They did not want to become the German Kerenskys. They did not want to be supplanted by the Bolshevists. Everywhere in Germany the Soldiers’ and Workers’ Councils were springing up and assuming power, as they had done in Russia. It was these groups which on November 10 elected a Council of People’s Representatives, with Ebert at its head, to govern Germany for the time being. In December the first Soviet Congress of Germany met in Berlin. Composed of delegates from the Soldiers’ and Workers’ Councils throughout the country, it demanded the dismissal of Hindenburg, the abolition of the Regular Army and the substitution of a civil guard whose officers would be elected by the men and which would be under the supreme authority of the Council.
This was too much for Hindenburg and Groener. They declined to recognize the authority of the Soviet Congress. Ebert himself did nothing to carry out its demands. But the Army, fighting for its life, demanded more positive action from the government it had agreed to support. Two days before Christmas the People’s Marine Division, now under the control of the Communist Spartacists, occupied the Wilhelmstrasse, broke into the Chancellery and cut its telephone wires. The secret line to Army headquarters, however, continued to function and over it Ebert appealed for help. The Army promised liberation by the Potsdam garrison, but before it could arrive the mutinous sailors retired to their quarters in the stables of the imperial palace, which the Spartacists still held.
The Spartacists, with Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, the two most effective agitators in Germany, at their head, continued to push for a soviet republic. Their armed power in Berlin was mounting. On Christmas Eve the Marine Division had easily repulsed an attempt by regular troops from Potsdam to dislodge it from the imperial stables. Hindenburg and Groener pressed Ebert to honor the pact between them and suppress the Bolshevists. This the Socialist leader was only too glad to do. Two days after Christmas he appointed Gustav Noske as Minister of National Defense, and from this appointment events proceeded with a logic which all who knew the new Minister might have expected.
Noske was a master butcher by trade who had worked his way up in the trade-union movement and the Social Democratic Party, becoming a member of the Reichstag in 1906, where he became recognized as the party’s expert on military affairs. He also became recognized as a strong nationalist and as a strong man. Prince Max of Baden had picked him to put down the naval mutiny at Kiel in the first days of November and he had put it down. A stocky, square-jawed man of great physical strength and energy, though of abbreviated intelligence—typical, his enemies said, of his trade—Noske announced on his appointment as Defense Minister that “someone must be the bloodhound.”
Early in January 1919 he struck. Between January 10 and 17—“Bloody Week,” as it was called in Berlin for a time—regular and free-corps troops under the direction of Noske and the command of General von Luettwitz* crushed the Spartacists. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were captured and murdered by officers of the Guard Cavalry Division.
As soon as the fighting in Berlin was over, elections were held throughout Germany for the National Assembly, which was to draw up the new constitution. The voting, which took place on January 19, 1919, revealed that the middle and upper classes had regained some of their courage in the little more than two months which had elapsed since the “revolution.” The Social Democrats (the Majority and Independent Socialists), who had governed alone because no other group would share the burden, received 13,800,000 votes out of 30,000,000 cast and won 185 out of 421 seats in the Assembly, but this was considerably less than a majority. Obviously the new Germany was not going to be built by the working class alone. Two middle-class parties, the Center, representing the political movement of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Democratic Party, born of a fusion in December of the old Progressive Party and the left wing of the National Liberals, polled 11,500,000 votes between them and obtained 166 seats in the Assembly. Both parties professed support for a moderate, democratic Republic, though there was considerable sentiment for an eventual restoration of the monarchy.
The Conservatives, some of whose leaders had gone into hiding in November and others who, like Count von Westarp, had appealed to Ebert for protection, showed that though reduced in numbers they were far from extinguished. Rechristened the German National People’s Party, they polled over three million votes and elected 44 deputies; their right-wing allies, the National Liberals, who had changed their name to the German People’s Party, received nearly a million and a half votes and won 19 seats. Though decidedly in the minority, the two conservative parties had won enough seats in the Assembly to be vocal. Indeed, no sooner had the Assembly met in Weimar on February 6, 1919, than the leaders of these two groups sprang up to defend the name of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the way he and his generals had conducted the war. Gustav Stresemann, the head of the People’s Party, had not yet experienced what later seemed to many to be a change of heart and mind. In 1919 he was still known as the man who had been the Supreme Command’s mouthpiece in the Reichstag—“Ludendorff’s young man,” as he was called—a violent supporter of the policy of annexation, a fanatic for unrestricted submarine warfare.
The constitution which emerged from the Assembly after six months of debate—it was passed on July 31, 1919, and ratified by the President on August 31—was, on paper, the most liberal and democratic document of its kind the twentieth century had seen, mechanically well-nigh perfect, full of ingenious and admirable devices which seemed to guarantee the working of an almost flawless democracy. The idea of cabinet government was borrowed from England and France, of a strong popular President from the United States, of the referendum from Switzerland. An elaborate and complicated system of proportional representation and voting by lists was established in order to prevent the wasting of votes and give small minorities a right to be represented in Parliament.*
The wording of the Weimar Constitution was sweet and eloquent to the ear of any democratically minded man. The people were declared sovereign: “Political power emanates from the people.” Men and women were given the vote at the age of twenty. “All Germans are equal before the law … Personal liberty is inviolable … Every German has a right … to express his opinion freely … All Germans have the right to form associations or societies … All inhabitants of the Reich enjoy complete liberty of belief and conscience …” No man in the world would be more free than a German, no government more democratic and liberal than his. On paper, at least.