[Book] Germany: from Revolution to Counter-Revolution

Introduction to the First Edition

“The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent but of anger and revolt amongst the workmen against prewar conditions. The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other.” (Lloyd George in a secret memorandum to the French Premier Georges Clemenceau, March 1919)

The German Revolution of November 1918 had an earth-shattering effect on the course of international events. It put an end to the carnage of the First World War in which some 10 million lost their lives and more than twice that number were wounded. It gave a colossal impetus to the developing revolution that was to sweep over Europe in the next twelve months. Last but not least, it was a startling inspiration to the Russian working class in their efforts to break their isolation, and extend the socialist revolution to the west.

On hearing news of the revolution, Lenin issued an immediate statement to the Russian workers:

“News came from Germany in the night about the victory of the revolution there. First Kiel radio announced that power was in the hands of a council of workers and soldiers. Then Berlin made the following announcement: ‘Greetings of peace and freedom to all. Berlin and the surrounding districts are in the hands of the Council of Workers and Soldiers’ Deputies...’

“Please take every step to notify German soldiers at all border points. Berlin also reports that German soldiers at the fronts have arrested the peace delegation from the former German government and have begun peace negotiations themselves with the French soldiers.”

As soon as the news of the German Revolution spread, tens of thousands of Russian workers spontaneously organised demonstrations. In describing its impact, the Bolshevik Karl Radek recalled:

“From every corner of the city demonstrations were marching towards the Moscow Soviet...Tens of thousands of workers burst into wild cheering. Never have I seen anything like it again. Until late in the evening workers and Red Army soldiers were filing past. The world revolution had come. The mass of the people heard its iron tramp. Our isolation was over.”

As with the February Revolution in Russia, the German masses poured onto the stage of history. They took destiny into their own hands. A red flag flew over every barracks and over every ship in the German Imperial Navy. Alongside a feeble government, the workers’ and soldiers’ councils ruled all the main cities of Germany. The old state apparatus had collapsed and the streets were now controlled by armed workers. In Berlin, a new government of Peoples’ Commissars had been appointed by the Executive Committee of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils. The Hohenzollern dynasty followed the Romanovs into oblivion. The Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, had fled to the Netherlands, followed by the rulers of four German kingdoms, five Grand Duchies and twelve Principalities.

As with the example of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, another age-old absolutism, that of the Hohenzollerns had collapsed. Under the hot breath of revolution, King Ludwig III of Bavaria simply packed his bags and left! The King of Wuerttemberg humbly pleaded that no red flag should fly over his palace after his departure! This was the comic opera of the revolution; far more serious were the discussions over terms of surrender taking place between the Allies and the German High Command in Marshall Foch’s railway carriage in the Forest of Compiègne.

A condition for signing the armistice was a demand that the German military immediately surrender the 30,000 machine guns in its possession. The German delegation replied that if this demand was acceded to, “There would not be enough left to fire on the German people should this become necessary.” Under this truly compelling argument the Allies agreed that 5000 machine guns could be retained for this precise purpose!

The war had given birth to revolution. In Germany, power was now in the hands of the workers, soldiers and sailors. The revolution represented the greatest blow to world capitalism since the Russian Revolution of October 1917. Tragically, however, the German proletariat failed to seize this opportunity of consolidating power in its hands and creating a German socialist republic as a springboard for the revolution in Europe. Very rapidly the workers’ councils handed power over to the Social Democratic leaders, who in turn began to rescue German capitalism.

Why did the socialist revolution fail? Why was this historic opportunity missed?