Historian Professor Robert Gerwarth, Professor of Modern History at University College Dublin and Director of the Centre for War Studies, talks about his recent book on the German 1918 Revolution. 


Dr Tom Thorpe [TT]: On today's program historian Professor Robert Gelwrath, Professor of modern History at University College Dublin and Director of the Centre of War studies at UCD to talk about his book on the 1918 November Revolution in Germany. This book is published by Oxford University Press. Robert spoke to me from his home in Dublin. 

Robert. Welcome to the Dispatches podcast. Could you start by telling us a bit about yourself and how you became interested in the Great War.

Professor Robert Gelwrath [RG] :I’m an historian of early 20th century European history, particularly German history - and more generally history of war and violence. I'm originally from Berlin, Germany and I moved to the UK in 2008 to do my PhD at Oxford. And then in 2007, after also doing a postdoc there,I moved to Dublin to take up my first permanent lecturing job that I'm still here in Dublin, now as Professor of modern history at University College Dublin.

I previously worked on the interwar period and then also on the Second World War. I was always interested in where the total violence that we see particularly on the Eastern Front during the conflict was coming from - where's the starting point to understand that eruption of ‘existential ultraviolence’ I would call it. And moving to Dublin, I was fortunate enough to be in a position to start having conversations with very well-known Dublin-based historians of the First World War such as John Horne and Helen Crama who had spent a great deal of their career up to that point thinking about the First World War and then we did something very few people actually do - historians of the First of the Second World War rarely talk to each other - and so there was a bit of a cluster here and we started to have very interesting conversations about how these two Total Wars compare: what sets them apart etc - and together with John [Horne} I recently started a research project that looked at how the Great War ended - or didn't end in 1918 because we generally think about First World War as something that starts in 1914 and ends in 1918 quite neatly, but that’s a very Western perspective because for much of Eastern and Central Europe, the war doesn't end in 1918. There are revolutions. There are civil wars etcetera that really last until 1923 -  killing at least I would say 4.5 million people - that's a very conservative estimate. So in other words, more people than British French and American soldiers who died in the First World War - and that's something that I think has been forgotten.

This project led to a publication of our jointly edited book ‘War and Peace’ which was published by Oxford University Press and then my own single author book ‘The Vanquished: Why the First World War failed to End’, which was published by Penguin. 

So I came to the First World War - to sum it up, from the Second World War and … asked questions about how we can understand this kind of existential violence - which I think we can really trace back to the First World War, and in some cases particularly on the Eastern Front and if we don't have the Armenian Genocide, but also more specifically to these years between the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Treaty of Lausanne - the last of the peace treaties at the end of the fFirst World War, which was concluded in 1923. 

[TT]: So why write a book on the 1918 German Revolution?

[PG]: Well, I think it started with me pondering more generally, as I just explained, how the First World War ended … One of the things that I noted was that there were about 30 revolutions or violent exchanges of power in this period - and very often, I think this has been ignored.

People, of course, know about the Russian Revolution, but they don't know about what is generally considered the lesser revolutions of this periods, but I think that the German Revolution - which is actually a very important revolution because it transforms Germany from an Imperial System to a liberal democracy - arguably the most liberal democracy of the time. And I think it's obviously the birth date of democracy in Germany - and people very often tend to look at these revolutions as a failed or half-hearted revolutions because they come to the subject from the vantage point of January 1933 - from the moment that Hitler is appointed Chancellor of Germany. And because the Wimar Republic ultimately failed, it is generally assumed that 1918 is merely a stepping stone to the Nazis’ seizure of power ... I feel that this is a highly unjust verdict - that the revolution was, when you measure it against the objectives of the revolutionaries, or his many of the revolutionaries (sic) - was actually a successful revolution, that established ... Germany was a liberal democracy and also led to the introduction, for example, of voting rights for women who had been disenfranchised up until that point - and other important reforms - such as the eight-hour working day.

So initially this revolution is actually welcomed by a vast majority of Germans as a transition to democracy and so I … caution against reading history backwards, which is of course something that we tell our students in the first year, in our very first seminars - never to read history backwards. But for some reason the revolution of 1918 has been exempted from that when this kind of situation is overshadowed by how the Wimar Republic ends.

[TT}: You've already touched on this already, but how is the 1918 Revolution seen in the broader historiography.

[PG]: Yeah, as I said, I think it is very often seen through the vantage point of 1933 the appointment of Hitler. And because the eventually became Chancellor of Germany because of the horrors of the Third Reich and the Second World War many historians have tried to (completely understandable) tried to trace the origin of the Nazi movement - which is of course, in many ways a product of First World War - and the German defeat but at the same time it is worth bearing in mind that the Nazi movement was tiny up until the Great Depression of 1929.

Nobody could have predicted in 1928 before the Great Depression starts that Hitler would ever become Chancellor of Germany.

So I think we need to resist the urge to ‘read history backwards’. We need to avoid seeing it as a failure, but also ...  measure it against the successes that the revolution had. What is interesting is that up until the present day the revolution is associated with the odium of treason in some political camps. Of course, we all know the stab in the back legend which was spread by the German far-right immediately after the First World War and was a very powerful narrative suggesting that the revolution had caused German defeat and therefore the Right associated the revolution with treason. 

At the same time a similar accusation coming from a very different direction is leveled by the far left. They aren't using the more moderate revolutionaries around [         ], the leader of the majority Social Democrats - of betraying the proper Revolution Germany - proper ‘social’ revolution by collaborating with more moderate liberals, but also with the [Fri Corps] to put down far left insurgents.

[TT] : So let’s look at the revolution itself. Can you just give us a broad overview of the events of how it unfolded in 1918. 

[PG]: Yes. I mean my book ... starts in 1917 for a variety of reasons. First of all, it's an important year of course in the history of the First World War because of the American entry into the war but also because of the Russian Revolution - both kinds of raised expectations some historians even speak of a ‘revolution of expectation’. 

On the far left, we’ve got certain groups that are hoping that the revolution would spread to Central Europe, which of course is Central to Marxist beliefs that … Germany and potentially Britain would also experience a revolution. Others … believe in Woodrow Wilson as a world leader who would bring democracy to Europe. At the same time. You also have rising expectations in the Nationalist camp Germany because of course in early 1918 Russia was locked out of the war. After the Revolution Lenin makes the very pragmatic decision to save the Revolution and of course to end the war - which is something that positive always promised. So from the perspective of German nationalist, it is now much more likely that Germany is going to win that - raising the expectations within the German nationalist minded middle classes and elites. And now, just a few months later, you have that situation where Germany is giving up winning the war and is losing that conflict …  and in that situation, the German Revolution is triggered by ‘war weariness’ - in the same way that the Russian Revolution initially begins with war weariness and and starvation and food shortages.

The actual events that lead to the wider Revolution is a sailor's Revolt in Kiel and Wilhelmshaven - two important port cities that are home to the German Imperial High Seas Fleet during the First World War. 

So essentially the German Admirals are deciding that the Imperial High Seas Fleet should be sent out for a last battle with the Royal Navy and many of the sailors are hesitant to follow orders. In fact, they refuse to follow these orders with that naval revolut. So this very quickly spreads first along the coast in Germany - the Baltic coast and the North Sea Coast and then moves inland. And what is quite unique about the German Revolution is that the revolution spreads inland, but it doesn't reach the capital until the 9th of November. 

So most revolutions tend to start in the capital, which is also at the centre of political power. Whereas here you have a revolution that basically captures the various German states first before then eventually arriving on the 9th of November in Germany.

And it is worth bearing in mind that the Kaiser Wilhelm II had, up until that point, refused to give in to some one of the key demands of the revolutionaries - namely to abdicate. There by radicalizing the revolution, because the revolution initially starts as a revolt to end the war as quickly as possible. And then with the Kaiser refusing to give in to some of the demands of the revolutionaries, the demands become more radical.

So eventually then on the 9th of November, the Republic is proclaimed and the German Chancellor without waiting for the Kaiser’s approval publicly declares that he had abdicated and he subsequently flees into exile in the Netherlands - and basically then spends the rest of his life in exile.

[TT]: So you think you've touched on the causes of the Revolution, but what overall role did Germany's military situation towards the end of October and November 1918 play in the outbreak and Revolution and subsequent course.

[PG]: Whether the defeat or the revolution are of course closely connected, although not in the way that is suggested in that nationalist ‘stab-in-the-back legend’ - which always suggested that the Revolution had caused this. Certain groups within Germany, notably, the far left - but also minorities such as Jews have collaborated to bring about the downfall of the Imperial System.

But really it was the other way round: imminent defeat and ‘war weariness’ in Germany caused the revolution. So there is a causality, but just not in the way that German nationalists in the interwar period had always suggested. So I think it is important to emphasise that it's that way round: it's the imminent defeat that spurs revolution. 

And of course, the fact that the war this point had been going on for four years and there is war weariness in all combatants societies, except maybe for the ones that have just entered the conflict like the United States where large numbers of American soldiers were only just starting to arrive in significant numbers - in Europe at that point. 

[TT]: So who exactly were the revolutionaries in the revolution and what did they want to achieve it? 

[PB]: When we think about the German revolutionaries it is important to emphasise that this is not  homogeneous. There are different camps within the revolutionary movement. There is the far-left: Communists and Independent Social Democrats, who had been against the war since 1914 and maintained that opposition to the war throughout. Then there are of course people like [ C L ] who are probably the most well-known representatives or leaders of the Independent Social Democrats of the far left.

And then there is the much larger Social Democratic Party and which is led by Ebert who is much more of a reluctant revolution(ary). 

So what happens already before the First World War’s that there is a major debate within the Social Democratic movement on how to achieve social and political change.

And some of the more moderate Social Democrats emphasise that they prefer ‘evolution’ through reforms to revolution. And they argue that this point when Germany became an economic powerhouse in Europe was too complex a society to achieve a classic Marxist Revolution - that Germany had already achieved quite a lot -  Germany, whilst it was not a democracy, is a country where workers have quite significant rights. What these more moderate Social Democrats would argue is that workers in Germany, unlike in say Tsarist Russia, have far more to lose through a revolution than just their chains - and that this process of political ‘evolution through reforms’ should be continued. 

So there are strong tensions within the Revolutionary movement in Germany and it is really started by the Independent Socialists and people further to the left. And so the Social Democrats - the majority of Social Democrats and the [      ] are put in this slightly awkward position, but they don't advocate revolution, but now all the the sudden they find themselves in a revolutionary situation and they are very keen to dominate that revolutionary control that revolutionary movement - and they succeed in doing so. Which is why you don't end up in Germany with a situation that is similar to Russia. Ebert and other majorities of the Democrats are against a councils republic form of direct democracy, that would be governed by social soldiers and workers councils, but Ebert Insisting that an elected constituent assembly should decide on the future form of state in Germany - and not the soldiers and workers councils that are the preferred option by the far left. 

[TT]: So why does liberal democracy triumph in Germany as opposed to another outcome such as a socialist Revolution ?

[PG}: Well, it has a lot to do with precisely Ebert’s consistency that there should be a national election for constituents. And essentially the outcome of that election , which took place in January 1919 is that the three parties most closely associated with - and most strongly in favour of liberal democracy:  the majority Social Democrats, the Liberals and the Catholic Centre Party - they emerge as the strongest political parties by far in the Constituent Assembly. And they work together very closely and draw up a Liberal Constitution - which is the preferred option when you look at the outcome of the January 1919 elections that the solution but most Germans prefer in … at that time … for a variety of reasons.

[TT]: And so what challenges did the new Weimar Republic face once the elections were complete?

[PG]: Well, the challenges that the Weimar Republic faced were obviously enormous - ranging from the legacies of a lost war - Germany had just lost the biggest military conflict in history up until that point. There were practical challenges ranging from the demobilisation of millions of soldiers who were, of course, at this point all still in the field - when the war ended. There were no enemy soldiers on German soil and the German soldiers were still spread all over Europe.

There were the challenges that many civil servants, conservative civil servants, did not sympathise with democracy. There was the challenge that was posed by the Versailles Peace Treaty. There was also radical opposition from the far left and from the far right … so the challenges are enormous. And what is more surprising ... is that the Republic lasted until 1933 and that it didn't collapse sooner because I would argue that relatively few Western democracies in modern history have faced a similar set of challenges as the Weimar Republic.

[TT]: And my penultimate question is, “what do you think the legacy of the 1918 Revolution is ?”

[PG] : Well curiously 1918 is not a date that features prominently in the festive calendar of German Democrats, but I would argue that we should be. It is after all the birth date of German of democracy -  and we … tend to think of the Weimar Republic primarily in terms of failure. Yes. It is a remarkable reminder that democracies can fail, that people in a democracy can decide that they no longer want to live in a democracy and vote for parties that want to abolish it - as was the case after the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.

However, I would argue the Weimar …  is also a prime example of a resilient democracy that survived … more challenges than any other Western democracy I can think of right now. So there are pouches, there is hyperinflation, there are the legacies of the Lost War. There are enemies on the far right and the far left. But despite all of that. It is worth remembering that in 1928 to the year before the Great Depression kicked in, the Republic seemed more stable than ever before. This is the year of another national election in Germany, and the Social Democrats, while most closely associated with the Weimar Republic - and are strongly in favour of the Republic. That's the year when they returned to government with a significant election Victory. And [Hammer Lulla ] the newly re-elected Chancellor published a book that year reflecting on the 1918 revolution in the year of the 10th anniversary - and the tenner of the book was ‘we did it’ - ‘we succeeded’ -  ‘democracy succeeded against all odds in Germany’, and then just a year later the Republic is facing the biggest economic crisis in modern history - and we know how that all ended.

[TT]:  And finally Robert, where can people learn more about your work?

[PG]: Well, obviously there is my website on the School of History, University College Dublin - th general website where you can find out more about my research interests and my publications to date - and with respect to this particular book ‘November 1918’, obviously, you can find it on Amazon and depending on where you are the bookshops may be open again - and it should be in your local Bookshop as well.

[TT] Robert, thank you very much for your time. 

[RB]: Thank you so much for having me.

Robert Gerwarth's book is published by Oxford University Press.

Book Review > https://bit.ly/2Lm8H9G