22/6/1919 Germany struggles with the Allied peace terms

The Allies have issued an ultimatum to the Germans: accept the proposed peace terms by tomorrow or face the renewal of war. This has caused a convulsion in the German body politic, where the terms are seen as dishonourable (in particular the requirement that Germany accept responsibility for starting the war) and harsh (notably the reparations that will have to be paid to the Allies). Groener, the army’s quartermaster general, has warned that renewal of the war would be a disaster and that Germany’s total defeat would be inevitable, but Hindenburg, the chief of staff, states that he would prefer “honourable defeat to a disgraceful peace”. Right-wingers and elements within the army’s officer corps support Hindenburg, some even fantasising that it might be possible to prevail over an Allied invasion. Brockdorff-Rantzau, the German foreign minister, meanwhile believes that if Germany stands firm then the Allies’ unity will break and they will be forced to moderate the their terms.

Erzberger is the main advocate for accepting the Allies’ terms. He was the head of the delegation that signed the armistice in November and since then has been Germany’s representative on the commission overseeing the armistice’s operations. Erzberger accepts that the proposed terms are invidious, but he argues that if they are accepted then Germany will be able to put the war behind it and start rebuilding its economy. If the terms are rejected then Germany faces ruin and will end up either being partitioned or succumbing to Bolshevik revolution.

The government is split. President Ebert himself comes close to resigning but is persuaded that duty requires him to stay in place and accept responsibility for the grave decision that must be made. His government falls but today he manages to put a new cabinet together (without Brockdorff-Rantzau). The national assembly authorises him to accept the Allied terms, but with the proviso that Germany rejects responsibility for starting the war. But the Allies are firm. Germany must accept the peace terms by tomorrow, in full and without reservation. If they fail to do so then the war will begin again.

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Matthias Erzberger (Wikipedia)

14/5/1919 Germany mulls the Allies’ unsavoury peace terms

The Allies have presented their peace terms to the German delegation at Versailles. They have in turn communicated the terms back to their government in Berlin, where their perceived harshness causes consternation. The loss of territory, the crippling reparations and the identifying of Germany as being responsible for starting the war all being very upsetting. True, the peace terms are much less harsh than those the Germans imposed on Russia at Brest-Litovsk or Romania at the Treaty of Bucharest. However, those treaties were the diktats of authoritarian Germany; since then Germany has undergone a democratic transformation and its leaders had believed President Wilson‘s promises that the peace would be guided by his liberal principles, only now apparently to have their faith shattered.

Scheidemann, Germany’s Chancellor, denounces the peace terms. There is talk of rejecting them, but doing so would mean having to restart the war. The German army was on the brink of collapse when the armistice was signed in November 1918 and its situation is worse now, after its demobilisation and the transfer of heavy equipment required by the armistice. But some think nevertheless that honour requires that Germany reject the peace and launch a desperate battle for national survival.

Brockdorff-Rantzau, the foreign minister, is one of the leading proponents of rejection, even if it means that Germany will be invaded. The advocates of resistance believe that they will be able to hold out in eastern Germany even if the west of the country comes under foreign occupation. It falls to Groener, the army’s quartermaster-general, to dismiss such fantasies. He makes clear to Ebert and Scheidemann that the German army would be unable to mount effective resistance to the Allies. Any attempt to renew the war would lead to Germany’s occupation, dismemberment, and ultimately “the total capitulation of the German people”. The Germans may not like the peace terms, but they will have to go along with them.

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Wilhelm Groener (Wikipedia: Ebert–Groener pact)

21/2/1919 The gun speaks: right wing fanatic kills Bavaria’s ousted prime minister

Although the Spartacist uprising has been defeated in Berlin, Germany’s capital remains restive. The city is deemed too unsafe for the recently elected national assembly, which instead meets in the quieter city of Weimar. There the Social Democrats form a coalition with the Centre Party and the German Democratic Party. The assembly begins work on a new constitution. Ebert is chosen as Germany’s first president and Scheidemann succeeds him as chancellor.
Meanwhile in Bavaria it had appeared as though the local political scene was stabilising after voters decisively rejected the radical left government of Kurt Eisner in state elections. Eisner has remained temporarily in power since the election, but today he finally bows to the inevitable and prepares to offer his resignation to Bavaria’s parliament. However, he is unable to do, as on the way to parliament he is shot and killed by Anton Arco-Valley, a reactionary aristocrat. The assassination triggers disturbances in Munich, with clashes erupting between supporters and opponents of the late premier.

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Kurt Eisner on his Way to the Bavarian State Parliament (GHDI – German History in Documents and Images)

11/1/1919 Freikorps militiamen crush the Spartacist revolt in Berlin

Street fighting has erupted in Berlin between supporters of Ebert‘s Social Democrat government and the Spartacists, who wish to reorganise Germany on the model of Soviet Russia. The Spartacists have occupied buildings in central Berlin and their supporters are staging strikes and demonstrations.

The Spartacists’ efforts are curiously ineffectual, hovering between demonstration and insurrection, with their various cadres operating without much coordination. The Spartacists also appear not to be making any direct attempt to seize Ebert’s government and remove him from power, perhaps hoping that he will simply go away. They have been unsuccessful in their attempts to persuade army units to join them; soldiers are largely opting to remain neutral, with even the radical marines of the People’s Naval Division staying out of the conflict. And across Germany workers are largely failing to rally to their cause.

Nevertheless, Ebert fears that without a decisive response his government will fall and Germany go the way of Russia. He has therefore resolved that the Spartacists must be crushed. The army proved unreliable in the Christmas Eve clashes with the People’s Naval Division, so Ebert is wary of relying on it to suppress the Spartacists. Instead he instructs Noske, his war minister, to make use of the Freikorps, paramilitary militia units of demobilised army veterans, many of whom have brought their weapons with them into civilian life. Many members of the Freikorps hold political views that could be characterised as reactionary; they are only too happy to have a crack at the socialist Spartacists.
The Freikorps march into Berlin today and soon overwhelm the Spartacists, clearing their street barricades and evicting them from occupied buildings. Order is restored to Berlin, but at some cost: 200 people die in the fighting, some of them Spartacists shot while trying to surrender, others civilians killed in the crossfire. A very small number of Freikorps members are also killed. Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and other Spartacist leaders go into hiding while Noske leads a victory parade through the city.

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Noske inspects a Freikorps unit (Wikipedia: Freikorps)

Freikorps unit with flamethrower in Berlin (Patrick Chovanec (@prchovanec) on Twitter)

Freikorps victims (Patrick Chovanec (@prchovanec) on Twitter)

Patrick Chovanec‘s Twitter account is worth following. You’ll come for the interesting nuggets of historical detail from a 100 years ago and stay for the insight into the current thinking of anti-Trump conservatives.

6/1/1919 The Spartacists revolt: an October Revolution for Germany?

Germany’s Social Democrats (the SPD), led by Chancellor Ebert, want Germany to develop on a progressive and reformist path, but to their left the Spartacists of Liebknecht and Luxemburg want a second German revolution, akin to the October Revolution in Russia. The Independent Social Democrats (the USPD) hover in between, more radical than Ebert but not as fulsome in their support of Bolshevism as the Spartacists.

On Christmas Eve Ebert attempted to suppress the People’s Naval Division, a unit of radical marines that had established itself in a former royal palace. The attempt failed, partly because the army proved unreliable in its support for Ebert’s crackdown. Nevertheless, the USPD left the governing coalition in protest at Ebert’s action, leaving the SPD alone in government.

To the Spartacists, it begins to look as though one push might overthrow Ebert, much as Lenin‘s coup removed Kerensky‘s provisional government. They call for mass demonstrations in Berlin, which take place today. Many of the Spartacists’ supporters are armed and they occupy buildings around the city, including the offices of the SPD’s newspaper. More demonstrations are called for the coming days and Spartacist agitators call for soldiers in the city to desert Ebert’s government. Are the Spartacists about to seize power? So their supporters hope, but Ebert is determined not to be Germany’s Kerensky. Together with Gustav Noske, his war minister, he prepares to strike back.

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Spartacists in Berlin (Wikipedia: German Revolution of 1918–19)

24/12/1918 Berlin’s Christmas Eve Battle #1918Live

It is Christmas Eve. Across Europe people are preparing for the season of goodwill to all men. But not in Berlin, where rival groups of men are today trading gunshots.

The German revolution first stopped the German navy from launching a suicidal attack on the British fleet, before overthrowing the Kaiser and hastening the end of the war. Now Friedrich Ebert leads a coalition government of his own Social Democrats (the SPD) and the slightly more radical Independent Social Democrats (the USPD). Preparations are underway for fully democratic elections to be held early next year.

No one really knows whether the German revolution is now essentially over, with the future being one of gradual reforms improving the lives of the SPD’s working class supporters, or if this is just a transitional phase akin to the rule of Kerensky‘s Provisional Government in Russia. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg of the Spartacist League hope that Ebert’s government will soon be replaced by a government based on workers’ councils, as supposedly is the case in Soviet Russia. Ebert meanwhile fears that any sign of unrest has been whipped up the Spartacists as a prelude to a coup attempt by them.

The Volksmarinedivision (People’s Navy Division) is a unit of revolutionary marines that were stationed in Berlin in the early days of the revolution, currently billeted in the former royal palace. Now a dispute has arisen between them and the commander of the city garrison, Otto Wels. Wels held back the marines’ pay; in return they have now mutinied, abducting him and roughing him up.

Ebert fears that the marines are preparing to spearhead a Spartacist putsch. He may also be coming under pressure from Groener, the army’s quartermaster-general, to do something about the unruly marines. So he orders regular troops to attack the palace and suppress the marines.

The assault on the palace begins with an artillery bombardment and then a fire fight erupts between the two sides. However the attack turns into something of a fiasco. The marines easily repel the army’s assault. They find themselves being assisted by armed civilians and members of the police force. There are even reports of soldiers switching sides and joining the Volksmarinedivision.

At the end of the day Ebert’s attempt to crush the marines has proved an embarrassing failure. His coalition partners in the USPD meanwhile are furious, as he launched the attack without consulting them. But the Volksmarinedivision makes no move to overthrow Ebert’s government; perhaps they are not actually in league with the Spartacists after all?

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Soldiers of the People’s Navy Division (LeMo – Lebendiges Museum Online: Die Weihnachtskämpfe 1918)

Members of the Volksmarinedivision defending the Neptune Fountain (Wikipedia: Skirmish of the Berlin Schloss)

10/12/1919 Ebert hails the undefeated German army #1918Live

As per the terms of the armistice, German forces have now withdrawn from all the French and Belgian territory they occupied at the start of the war; Luxembourg‘s independence has also been restored. Now Allied forces are moving into western Germany, occupying the Rhineland and preparing to establish bridgeheads across the river.

In Berlin meanwhile German troops evacuated from the Western Front today march through the city. The event almost has the characteristics of a victory parade, with Chancellor Ebert greeting the returning soldiers with the words “No enemy has vanquished you! You return undefeated from the field of battle.”

Any German soldier who has fought this year on the Western Front knows that the German army has been defeated by the Allies, who first contained Ludendorff‘s spring offensives and then broke the Germans’ ability to resist in the hundred days of offensives that preceded the armistice. Ebert knows this too, but he has his reasons for indulging the army’s pride. He fears that the fragile new republic is under threat from leftist extremists like Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg and from reactionary elements who want to establish a conservative dictatorship. If flattery is the price of the army’s support for his government, then so be it.

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Rhineland occupation zone map (Big Think: The Free State of Bottleneck, a Bizarre By-product of Allied Occupation)

Ebert waves his hat (deutschland.de, how Germany ticks – Germany’s greatest revolution: Why the German November Revolution has often been underestimated)

10/11/1918 Ebert tells Erzberger to agree the Allied armistice terms #1918Live

Germany is in a state of flux. Ebert is now the Chancellor of a republic, the Kaiser having fled to Netherlands this morning. In the Chancellery he receives a telephone call on a secret line from Groener at army headquarters in Spa. Groener promises to support Ebert’s government; Ebert in turn promises to suppress the more extreme revolutionary elements and to respect the prerogatives of the army’s officer corps.

Ebert also receives the armistice terms that Foch presented to Erzberger in the Compiègne forest. The terms are harsh but Ebert knows that Germany cannot continue the war. He authorises Erzberger’s signature of an armistice on whatever terms he can obtain. The armistice negotiations now enter their final lap.

9/11/1918 Germany overthrows the Kaiser #1918Live

A revolutionary wind is blowing through Germany but the Kaiser is facing increasing calls to abdicate but remains determined to hold onto his throne. Nevertheless even in conservative circles some are now thinking that the Kaiser must go in order to take the sting out of the revolution. At military headquarters in Spa the Kaiser is joined by his son, the Crown Prince, and he meets with senior military leaders to make plans for the future. He talks of leading the army back to Germany to restore order, but Groener, the army’s quartermaster-general, administers the death blow: he informs the Kaiser that he no longer enjoys the confidence of the army. “The army,” he says, “will march back to Germany peacefully and orderly under its commanders and commanding generals, but not at the command of your majesty, because it no longer supports your majesty”.

To support Groener’s proposition, the views of a group of officers who have just arrived at Spa are canvassed. Of the thirty-nine, just one is in favour of marching behind the Kaiser. Even without the Kaiser they see an armistice as a vital precondition before any attempt to restore order in Germany can be attempted.

The Kaiser is shocked. He resolves to resign as Emperor of Germany but remain as King of Prussia. Then he goes for lunch while this news is cabled to Berlin. But disturbing reports soon arrive from Berlin. Prince Max, the Chancellor, has announced the Kaiser’s complete abdication as both emperor and king. And Scheidemann, a leading Social Democrat, has gone further: to cheering crowds gathered outside the Chancellery he announces the abolition of the monarchy. Germany is now a republic.
The Kaiser attempts to send messages to Berlin informing them that he his only abdicating as Emperor and not as King of Prussia, but no one is listening. Rumours begin to spread that the Kaiser’s personal safety cannot be guaranteed and that the soldiers making up his personal guard are no longer reliable. He finally bows to the inevitable and agrees to go into exile in the Netherlands.

Meanwhile in Berlin the situation remains chaotic. Prince Max has resigned as Chancellor, handing power to Ebert, but Ebert is furious with Scheidemann for declaring a republic, feeling that only a constituent assembly could make this change. Scheidemann is unrepentant. His spontaneous declaration has taken the wind out of the sails of Karl Liebknecht, the Spartacist leader, who had planned to proclaim a socialist republic on the Bolshevik model.

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Philipp Scheidemann declares the Republic (Wikipedia: Philipp Scheidemann)

7/11/1918 Spreading revolution in Germany leads to the flight of Bavaria’s King and calls for the Kaiser’s abdication #1918Live

A year ago the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. Now Germany too is in the grip of revolution. What started as a sailors’ mutiny is spreading through the cities of northern Germany, with the the sailors’ recruiting workers and soldiers to their radical goals. Hamburg, Bremen and Wilhelmshaven have joined Kiel and are now in revolutionary hands. Radical agitators have spread the revolution inland, with Hannover, Cologne and Oldenburg now also flying the red flag. Even Bavaria is not immune to the revolutionary wave, with increasing unrest in Munich forcing King Ludwig III to flee for the relative safety of Salzburg in Austria.

The leaders of the mainstream Social Democrats are cautious, fearing the consequences of unbridled revolution. But they know also that they must remain in step with the popular mood or risk being consigned to the dustbin of history. Ebert, the Social Democrat leader, warns the Chancellor that if the Kaiser does not abdicate then an uncontainable revolution will be inevitable. Then in the evening the Social Democrats go further, issuing a public demand for the abdication of both the Kaiser and the Crown Prince.

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Friedrich Ebert (Wikipedia Commons)