Sounds Good Explores the German Revolution in New Series, "The History of Democracy"

Oct 24, 2019

At the end of the First World War (1918-1919), Germany experienced a powerful revolution in which the monarchy was overthrown and replaced with a democratic government system. Murray State University professor of history, David Pizzo, Ph.D., visits Sounds Good to discuss the revolution in the first installment of a new series, "The History of Democracy."

David Pizzo, Ph.D.: 

"So, I'm going to talk a little bit about the German Revolution. A lot of people probably are already making a face because often, we don't think of Germans in that way. You know, compared to the Russian Revolution, the French Revolution. Indeed, Lenin once joked that the Germans would never have a real revolution because they would line up to buy tickets first. But they did, in fact, have a real revolution. It was about 100 years ago and just a couple months ago.

So I was at the centenary events last fall in Germany. It was a very, very eerie atmosphere because this was a century since the end of [World War I] and this huge moment where democracy had broken through. It knocked away the monarchy and created a whole new system. And this system, to some degree, has a bad wrap. This is the Weimar Republic. But I want to take a moment to think about all the ways normal people rose up and made history.

If you look at the situation in the fall of 1918, Germany is in a very bad way. They'd been fighting a grotesque industrial war for, at that point, about 51 months unendingly. Almost two million of them dead. Three times that many wounded and maimed in the most horrible ways you could possibly imagine. Starvation is looming in the streets. There are huge bread lines in German cities like Hamburg and Berlin...angry women who reach the front and there's no bread and riots break out and they're beating up the police. The social situation is definitely coming unglued. The situation at the front is getting worse and worse. By October, essentially, the military high command and the Kaiser [German Emperor Wilhelm II] realize the game is up and they scramble to reform. They put out this guy named Prince Max von Baden who's supposed to convince people this new Chancellor is sort of a democrat. They're hoping the Allies will let them out of the war on better terms if they look like a democracy. That could've maybe been the end of the story, but then things take a very radical turn. 

The navy, without really talking to anyone, decides that they do not want to give up their precious toy. So they decide to order the navy on October 20th to go on a suicide mission. The sailors...say, 'nope, not doing that,' rise up, and overthrow their officers. In these places [of rebellion, they] form Sailors, Workers, and Soldiers Councils, so there's this spontaneous explosion of democracy that of course, to a certain degree, was inspired by some of what they had seen in Russia. Russia loomed very large in the minds of everybody in these events. They leave their bases and begin marching towards the cities and towards Berlin especially. At this point, the Kaiser freaks, he wants to actually send out the army to crush them and hit them with sabres. His own officers say, 'the game is up, it's over. You need to get out of here right now.'

In Berlin itself, as the revolution is percolating up, peoples around the SPD [Social Democratic Party of Germany] - this is the socialist people like Friedrich Ebert, Philipp Scheidemann, Rosa Luxemburg - the socialists in Berlin, with Max Von Baden's approval, declare a republic. The Kaiser wasn't consulted, and they spontaneously announce, 'we're a democracy, the monarchy is over, and we're getting out of this horrible war.' The Kaiser has to flee. This new government, you know, the situation's chaotic, but they do hold an election just a little bit later in January. In that election, the parties of the socialists, the left-liberals, and the center party of the Catholics, that coalition gets 76% of the vote. This was a massive endorsement of reform, revolution, and an end to the monarchy. This was the first time women had voted, so the suffrage had doubled. 

That new state, it comes to be called the Weimar's not smooth sailing. They face all kinds of challenges. The food situation has not improved, the British blockade isn't lifted because they want them to sign the treaty. They face challenges from both the far left and the far right. In early 1919, there's an uprising of so-called Spartacists who feel the revolution hasn't gone far enough. The only way they put that down is by actually aligning with, I'm just going to call them right-wing death squads, that are called Freikorps. Then, the Freikorps turn on [the Spartacists] and try to overthrow them and try and replace them with a right-wing dictatorship. In the middle of all that, they actually manage to craft one of the most progressive constitutions that's ever existed. 

People fault [the constitution] for, in some ways, being perhaps too democratic because it was based on proportional representation, and Weimar votes did really sort of fragment. [The constitution] did have some emergency powers in it because they were so panicked at the level of chaos that they were seeing in the late war repeating itself, and they wanted mechanisms to address that. In terms of giving women the right to vote, in terms of the suffrage it created, how democratic it was, the welfare benefits it guaranteed, it was incredibly progressive for that era. And the Weimar democracy, despite all those early challenges - and they just kept coming...Hitler rises up against them in '23 - they manage to survive all of that and reach a period of relative stability that had its problems, and we view it as a sort of anti-chamber to Nazism, but I think the Weimar Republic...was one of the most creative, innovative, amazing times probably in the history of the world in a lot of ways. 

The pressure coming from below in many ways was quite progressive, or regressive, because the right in Weimar was quite active too, but there was tremendous pressure to pay out more benefits, to have plebiscites [the direct vote of all members of an electorate on public questions, such as a change in the constitution] on things, there was a whole ugly argument on taking all the nobles' property away. So there was some really radical undercurrents. In many ways, I think the SPD was putting a dampener on that. Credit where credit is due, they really were worried about the ship sinking, they were worried about a second revolution. But there were a lot of times and in a lot of ways that Ebert and Scheidemann...really were trying to put the brakes on the speed of change. They really didn't want to alienate the aristocracy, they didn't want to alienate the army, they were really hoping - you know, we think of it as moderates - they were hoping to integrate, well, we'll just call it the right in the system. But a lot of people wanted it swept away. So I think that radicalism, in many ways, was coming from below. 

[In conclusion], ordinary people paying attention to events and standing up matters. I could tell you this and that about the Kaiser said...the Allies say, but ultimately, what really pushed things over the edge, what washed the monarchy away, what really, truly ended the war immediately - rather than some sort of drawn-out bloodbath extending into 1919 - was ordinary men and women, young and old, standing up and rejecting the war, rejecting the state that, in their mind, had brought catastrophe down on them. They weren't content to just yell about it, they literally got up and took to their feet and swarmed. And that was the end of that."

David Pizzo will return to the Sounds Good studios to continue "The History of Democracy" series on Tuesday, November 5th. You can listen on-air at 12 noon or read the transcript here at