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)

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 then comes disturbing reports 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 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)

8/11/1918 Bavaria becomes a republic but the Kaiser insists that Germany will not lost its Emperor nor Prussia its King #1918Live

Revolution is spreading through Germany with the masses turning against the royal families that have long ruled them. Yesterday the King of Bavaria fled to Austria; today in Munich the monarchy is declared abolished. Bavaria is now a socialist republic with Kurt Eisner of the Independent Social Democrats (USPD) its first premier.

The position of the Kaiser as head of Prussia and Germany meanwhile is increasingly under threat. The Social Democrats have called for his removal, a move calculated to prevent their support ebbing away to more radical rivals like the USPD or the Spartacists of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Prince Max, the Chancellor, fears that the country will descend into a civil war if the Kaiser does not go. From Berlin he telephones the Emperor at Spa, warning him that he should resign to prevent the country descending into chaos. The Kaiser is again furious, railing at Max that he has no intention of abdicating and will restore order to Germany at the head of his army if needs be. The Chancellor offers to resign, but the Kaiser will not let him go; he wants Prince Max to stay on so that blame for the armistice terms will attach itself to him.

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Celebrating the Bavarian Republic (German History in Documents and Images: The Proclamation of the Bavarian Republic (November 8, 1918))

21/12/1915 Germany’s pro-war consensus begins to fray

At the outbreak of war in 1914, Germany’s Social Democrat Party (the SPD) abandoned its longstanding pacifism. The party joins others in backing the war effort, a suspension of normal politics that becomes known as the Burgfrieden (castle peace). Some of socialists were intoxicated by the militarist tide sweeping Europe at the time while others feared government repression should they have protested against the war. Others still feared that conditions for German workers would be worse under rule by the Russian Tsar than the German Kaiser and the country’s semi-democratic system of government.

The SPD’s support for the war remains conditional. The party supports a defensive war against Germany’s enemies and opposes a war of conquest. Yet the war now is hard to portray as a defensive struggle for national survival. There are no enemy forces on German soil but German armies are campaigning in France, Belgium, Russia and Serbia. The reorganisation of territories in the East to suit German economic needs makes it look these territories are effectively being annexed to the Reich. Many of Germany’s socialists begin to wonder if they have been duped into supporting a war of conquest.

Today in the German parliament deputies vote to approve credits to finance the continuing war. Maverick SPD member Karl Liebknecht has previously voted against war credits, almost the only parliamentarian to do so. This time concerns about the war’s aims and progress sees him joined by 19 other SPD deputies. The vote is still carried, with a majority of SPD deputies voting in favour, but it shows that cracks are appearing in Germany’s pro-war consensus.

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Karl Liebknecht (Wikipedia)

8/9/1915 The Zimmerwald conference: socialists meet to oppose the war

In the Swiss town of Zimmerwald anti-war socialists have spent the last three days meeting to discuss how best to oppose the war. The conference has attracted delegates from many different countries, both belligerent and neutral.

Some of the attendees are people in Swiss exile as a way of avoiding conscription in their home country. This appears to be particularly true of the Russian delegates, which includes figures like Grigory Zinoviev, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky from the rival Bolshevik and Menshevik socialist parties.

Notable by his absence is the German socialist Karl Liebknecht. Despite his immunity as a member of the Reichstag, his opposition to the war has seen him drafted into the German army and shipped off to the Eastern Front. Refusing to fight, he has been put to work burying corpses. A message from him is read out to the conference, but his name is not recorded in the minutes, for fear of reprisals against him.

The Zimmerwald delegates are divided into left and very left factions, finding it hard to reach agreement on many issues. They are probably conscious of their current marginalisation in their home countries and their inability to bring the war to an end. But they agree at least to establish a temporary International Socialist Commission in Berne, which will publish the proceedings of the conference and coordinate affairs of the affiliated parties.

image source (International Institute of Socialist History)