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?

image sources:

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)

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.

image sources:

Friedrich Ebert (Wikipedia Commons)

Munich demonstrators (Haus der Bayerischen Geschichte, Revolution in München: 7. November 1918 – Theresienwiese)

24/10/1918 A developing rupture between Prince Max’s government and Ludendorff’s army #1918Live

In their last note to Wilson the Germans disputed his assertion that the retreating German army was laying waste to France and Belgium and denied that the U-boat campaign was a particularly beastly undertaking. They also asserted that political reforms in Germany mean that the German government is now effectively responsible to the Reichstag. As a concession the Germans nevertheless agreed to immediately recall the U-boats to port, in advance of a general armistice.

The Germans hoped that their concession would lead to Wilson’s agreeing to proceed immediately to substantive armistice negotiations. However the reply from Washington that arrives today is disturbing. Secretary of State Lansing writes on the President’s behalf that the United States is willing now to arrange with the other Allies for armistice talks to begin. However the note makes clear that the terms offered will be such as to make it impossible for the Germans to renege on the armistice and resume the war. Wilson still sees the Kaiser as the ultimate director of German policy and does not trust any guarantees made by the German government. He offers the prospect of real negotiations with a truly representative German government, but so long as real power remains with the Kaiser and the generals then the United States must demand “not peace negotiations, but surrender”.

To the Social Democrats in Prince Max‘s cabinet, the American note means that the Kaiser will have to be removed from office. The position of Hindenburg and Ludendorff is now also under question. Ludendorff has changed his mind on the armistice issue and now wants the army to fight to the bitter end.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff today depart Berlin for the army’s field headquarters in Spa. From they issue a proclamation to the army denouncing Wilson’s proposals and urging the continuance of resistance to the Allies. The two generals are now trying to continue the war in defiance of Germany’s government.

The text of Lansing’s note.

19/7/1917 The Reichstag passes its Peace Resolution #1917Live

German parliamentarians are restless. The failure of the U-boat war to bring Britain to its knees has made them unruly. Bethmann Hollweg has been sacked as Chancellor because of his failure to keep the Reichstag in line. Now the politicians take a bold step as Germany’s parliament passes a Peace Resolution supported by the Socialists, Progressives and the Catholic Centre Party. The resolution calls for a “a peace of understanding, for durable reconciliation among the peoples of the world” and rejects “territorial acquisitions achieved by force and violations of political, economic, or financial integrity”. It also calls for the establishment of new international organisations after the war’s end.

The Peace Resolution is no pacifist charter. The politicians support the war’s continuation so long as Germany’s enemies continue to threaten the Fatherland. Nevertheless, the resolution is something of an embarrassment for Hindenburg and Ludendorff (Germany’s effective rulers), as they are very much wedded to a post-war reconstruction of Europe to Germany’s advantage.

full text of the resolution

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Incoming Chancellor Michaelis addresses the Reichstag (Deutscher Bundestag: Kaiserreich 1871-1918)

12/12/1916 Bethmann Hollweg’s peace initiative

Today in a speech to the Reichstag, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg reveals that he has just despatched a note to the Vatican, inviting Germany’s enemies to enter into negotiations to end the war. Noting that German forces have overrun Romania and continued to see off Russian and Franco-British offensives, Bethmann Hollweg presents his offer as the magnanimous gesture of an invincible power seeking to avoid senseless slaughter.

Bethman Hollweg does not outline German terms. His diplomatic effort is partly being made for internal consumption. The Social Democrats are still supporting the war but have grown suspicious that Germany’s leaders are engaged in a war of conquest. Bethmann Hollweg hopes that his offer of negotiations will reassure them that Germany remains a peace-loving nation that has been forced into conflict. He also hopes that if the Allies reject his offer then their populations might start to turn against their leaders for keeping the war going.

The United States of America looms large in the Chancellor’s thoughts. Relations with America have been fraught ever since the sinking of the Lusitania. With his peace initiative he hopes to improve Germany’s reputation in the United States. Above all else, Bethmann Hollweg fears a rupture with the Americans. Many senior figures in Germany are calling for a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, which the Chancellor fears will bring the Americans into the war on the Allied side. With his peace initiative he hopes to delay the U-boat lobby from pressing the issue.

2/12/1916 The Reichstag blocks Ludendorff’s plans to completely militarise the German economy

Erich Ludendorff, the Quarter-Master General, is trying to harness the entire German economy for the war effort. As he sees it, the struggle with the Allies is a Materialschlacht, a struggle in which the side that can better marshal its resources will be the winner. Germany has long conscripted men into the military but now Ludendorff wants civilians to be conscripted into the vital war industries, to ensure the army has what it needs to keep the war going.

At Ludendorff’s behest, Groener, the head of the Supreme War Office has drawn up a draft law to extend conscription so that males between the ages of 16 and 60 can be conscripted into Patriotic Auxiliary Service, which generally would mean that Ludendorff and Groener could send them to do anything deemed necessary for the war effort.

Today at last the Reichstag passed the auxiliary service law. Unfortunately for Groener and Ludendorff, the politicians have heavily watered down the proposal, diluting the near dictatorial powers the generals had sought. A raft of exemptions have been added to the bill and the Reichstag has insisted on establishing a parliamentary committee to oversee the law’s operations. Worse, the Social Democrats and other left parties have added in provisions establishing worker committees in all enterprises employing more than 50 people, effectively mandating trade union recognition. Workers will remain far more free to switch jobs at will than Ludendorff or Groener had envisaged.

Ludendorff is dismayed at the Reichstag’s watering down of his proposals. If only there was some way of getting rid of these troublesome politicians. Then the entire country could be run on efficient military lines.

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.

image source:

Karl Liebknecht (Wikipedia)