The Weimar Years – Part 1

May 31, 2024
12 mins read

The Weimar Years – the Origins of the Weimar Republic, Jan 1918 to Aug 11, 1919

Editor’s Note: This is composed by our good friend Sulla. Expect more to come.

This started out as an attempt to better understand Weimar Germany by chronicling my reactions to the audiobook version of “The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918-1933” by Frank McDonough.   Writing my reactions down would help me retain and catalog them. 

In trying to understand just what happened in Weimar, I realized I would be confronted with the problem of finding an honest author, one who did not reflexively recite the shibboleths (sic) of those who see Nazi Germany strictly through the lens of “baddest baddies ev-ar” and “muh Holocaust.”  Without taking a position on the Nazis or the Holocaust, I think it is eminently plausible to investigate the events that led to the rise of the Nazi Party and to, shall we say, attempt to notice events of that time period.  But noticing is frowned up in both liberal and rhymes-with-duck-servative circles these days, and it is the rare author who is allowed to do so.  

McDonough’s work is chronicled year-by-year, with a chapter for each from 1918 – the year that WWI brought down the Kaiser and began the revolution that created the Weimar Republic – to 1933, the year the Nazis sent the Weimar Republic off to be gassed.   So to speak.  

But before I got through even the first chapter, I realized there was far more going on than I’d ever known, and set about cross-referencing and cross-checking as much as I could.  I was stunned at how, and how quickly, Imperial Germany became the Weimar Republic.  Very much like Hemingway’s description of bankruptcy: slowly at first, then all at once. I wanted to dig deeper into this shocking change.  And so here I have created a multipart series that just deals with the time period from the fall of the Kaiser’s Second Reich through to the creation of the Weimar Republic, roughly January 1918 to August 11, 1919, when the Weimar Constitution was adopted.  I plan to do a further series on the Weimar Republic itself, and the years from 1919 to 1933, but I believe this 19 to 20 month period is momentous enough to warrant a treatment by itself. 

The series will have 5 parts.   Part 1 is this intro, an intro to McDonough’s work, and my high-level reaction to Chapter 1 and part of 2 (1918-1919), which will take a very broad-brush to this period, but hopefully provides some framing and touchpoints.  This part is entirely based on McDonough’s work and my reaction to it.  Later parts will include other sources. 

Part 2 is a more detailed background of the structure of the German government under the Kaiser, the political parties, and the people of note during the momentous events that ended both WWI and the German Empire.

Part 3 is a detailed timeline of events from the first major anti-war strikes in January, 1918 to the Armistice on November 11, 1918

Penultimately, Part 4 is a detailed timeline of events from the armistice on Nov 11, 1918 to the ratification of the new Weimar Constitution on August 11, 1919. 

And finally Part 5 will be my attempt at a summation of the German Revolution of 1918-1919, for better or for worse. 


The intro states that the failure of Weimar democracy led to the Nazis, and makes the expected genuflections to modern sensibilities that the antediluvian “Right” in Germany never accepted the coming of democracy (claimed especially true among the military).   However, it’s far more even-handed than I expected, and I originally thought the JQ is handled in an interesting manner.  I’ve revised that since, but more on that later.  McDonough mentions that “the Right” had longstanding anti-Semitic views and he goes on to list a host of things blamed on the Jews with what I initially thought was the ordinary conspiracy theory dismissal of, “apparently the Jews were to blame for all the ills” eye-roll.   But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was ambiguous.   The ills he mentioned were real, and he’s done absolutely nothing (so far) to debunk the conspiracy theories.   But as I read (er, listened, it was an audiobook) the more I came to think it just never occurred to him it was something that needed debunking.

He did take an axe to the idea democracy failed in Weimar because the Germans had no experience with it.  Although the Kaiser was the monarch, there was a long-standing electoral process, with men over the age of 25 having the vote and electing different bodies.   There were several political parties, with the Social Democrats (SPD center-left) being the largest.  There was also a far-left socialist party, and a number of communist agitators setting up “workers’ councils.” 

Chapter 1, 1918

The first chapter deals with the failures of WWI in the closing year of the conflict.  It’s a stalemate on the Western Front, while the new communist government in Russia has surrendered on the Eastern Front.  But America has joined on the Allied side and Germany’s own allies in the Central Powers have collapsed, leaving Germany alone.  So Germany launches an offensive meant to defeat the Allies before America’s military power can assemble in Europe.   The offensive fails and Germany is facing defeat of some kind, the degree of which is still up in the air.   The German people are tired after years of war, and political turmoil is brewing.  The communists are organizing more workers’ councils, and now also soldiers’ and sailors’ councils.  There are two major factions of socialists, the moderate (the SPD, now renamed the Majority Social Democratic Party, MSDP) and the radical, the split off Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), but within the USPD  there is an even more radical group, the Spartacus League, led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.  Liebknecht was the son of one of the founders of the SPD.  Luxemburg, McDonough notes, was Jewish.  He seems for the moment to think very highly of her, saying she was on an intellectual par with Marx.  Liebknecht and Luxemburg were being secretly funded by the communist government of the Soviet Union. 

Lots of turmoil, calls for the Kaiser to abdicate, calls for revolution… then the Imperial Navy leadership did something incredibly stupid.  In October they proposed an all-out attack by their main fleet into the North Sea.  It was obviously a suicide mission, facing the combined navies of Great Britain, France and the US.  The leadership wasn’t worried about that; they assumed the ships would all be lost in any armistice deal, so it didn’t matter if all the ships were sunk. The crews of those ships, however, did mind getting blown up, incinerated and drowned in the process, so there was a mutiny in Kiel, which spread.  That was apparently the spark that kicked off revolutions across the country, with Workers’ Councils and Soldiers’ Councils taking over government buildings, declaring new provincial governments in the various German kingdoms, principalities, etc., all of which were considerably older and more established forms of government than the German Reich itself, which was less than 50 years old. 

At this point, McDonough kind of glosses over all this dramatic change.  Not much in the way of details, and it all seems to have happened so fast. Was this planned? Was there some coordination? How did this happen so quickly?  He doesn’t do a great job presenting the timeline, which seems far too compressed.   The official timeline is that when the sun rose on October 29, 1918, Germany was an Empire headed by the Kaiser, then the Kiel Mutiny happened, and 11 days later there was a new form of government. The Kaiser had… um, well, not quite abdicated, more like “been abdicated”, and two days later the Armistice was signed.  

Oh, and every provincial/state government was overturned as well.  

All in less than two weeks. 

At this point, I – and no doubt you – have questions. Which McDonough doesn’t make much effort to address.   Foremost of course is the astonishing timing – all this happened, all these revolutionary workers’ and soldiers’ councils took power rapidly across a profoundly law-abiding empire of sixty-some million, composed of over two dozen constituent states, with… what coordination?  Who was pulling all these strings?  There’s some allusion to the Soviets through their Spartacus moles, but Spartacus was minute compared to the other parties, and was quickly disposed of by the new government.  

Another question is… are we really supposed to believe the German Imperial Navy command was that stupid, callous and short-sighted?  Callous enough to order the entire navy on an obvious suicide mission, and stupid enough to think the sailors would obey?

There’s more to Chapter 1, including the Armistice, and events through November and December, but this is already too damn long, so I’ll pick up the rest of Chapter 1 later, and close for now with an observation:

Whatever the machinations behind the German revolution of 1918, the rapidity of how quickly things changed must have been profoundly destabilizing to the German populace.  Things had been bad for a couple of years, the war was increasingly seen as unwinnable (though not necessarily lost), but they still had a nation, a Kaiser, and the local government forms they’d been used to for hundreds of years.

And it was all gone in a fortnight. 

Within the introduction, McDonough mentions the idea of the “Stab in the Back,” that the German people didn’t accept that they had lost the war.  Rather, the new, left-wing government ushered in by the November revolution (oy vey, enough with the November revolutions already, though even money ours is another one considering when the 2024 election happens), was guilty of the “Stab in the Back.”  It sold out the German people, their army was never defeated, etc., etc.   I get the impression McDonough believes the “Stab in the Back” was a myth accepted by the German Right, which propelled the Nazis to power a decade and a half later. 

And perhaps there’s something to it.  As he discusses the Armistice, he hints at one thing, and flat out advocates for another.   The hint is in the delegation sent to meet with Marshall Foch.  The German government deliberately included no members of the Military class in the delegation, and I got the impression McDonough was hinting they did this because they believed the Allies would be more receptive to a delegation that didn’t include any swaggering Junkers.  But the Allies didn’t give a damn – the German delegation was sick to their stomach when they realized there were no Americans in the Allied delegation and that Wilson’s 14 Points weren’t the basis of the proposal.   And, hint, hint, the fact that there were no members of the military class involved from the German side meant the blame for accepting the harsh terms fell entirely on the liberal government, lending credence to the “Stab in the Back” even though – McDonough claims – the General Staff (Army command) sent the delegation in the first place. 

The more explicit statement McDonough makes is that the Allies made a profound mistake negotiating the Armistice while all the fighting was on Allied land – the lines were far removed from Germany, so it was easy for the German people to believe their army was undefeated since it was still occupying enemy territory when the politicians stabbed it in the back and surrendered. 

This is only plausible if you discount all the revolutionary turmoil going on in Germany itself.  One of two things must have been true – either the German people realized the Kaiser’s government had botched the war and a new regime was preferable, or the turmoil and revolutionary fervor didn’t really exist to any significant degree and it was all an early 20th Century example of a color revolution.  

Or, on the Gripping Hand, perhaps the people thought the Kaiser had botched it and wanted someone new, only to regret it later, post-hoc fabricating the Stab in the Back to avoid their own culpability.   I cannot say, but it would be nice to have a clear enough account to figure it out. 

But back to November-December events.   The Kaiser had gone to a spa during the closing days of the war… wait, no, sorry, he had gone to the town of Spa in Belgium, where the Imperial Army HQ was in late 1918.  He claimed his place was with his soldiers and left Berlin, so was therefore absent from the capital – for better or worse I’m not sure – when things hit the fan.   The calls for him to abdicate intensified, but he refused for as long as he could.  Then General Groener told him the Army would not fight to preserve him as Kaiser, so he suggested he would abdicate as Kaiser of the German Empire but would retain Kingship of Prussia.   The next thing he knew, Prince Max of Baden – the Chancellor – announced to the country that Kaiser Wilhelm II had abdicated.  Fait accompli, or however it’s said in German.  The next day the Kaiser was on his way to exile.  That was November 9.  Later that day Prince Max himself resigned, and Friedrich Ebert – the head of the SPD (or maybe it was the MSPD, things shift a bit) took charge.   Before the day ended, his aide Scheidemann proclaimed the German Republic. 

Ebert was a centrist and had conspired with Prince Max to ease the revolution into place without allowing the Marxists into power.   The Marxists of course wanted into power, as all Marxists do.  Liebknecht and the extremely small (~100 members?) Spartacus League were about to proclaim a Marxist republic, which is what prompted Scheidemann to proclaim a non-Marxist one first.  The Marxists went ahead and announced “elections” for the next day where factory workers would elect councils that would govern the country (why would factory workers be the only ones with a vote?   A question with an obvious answer, but one McDonough doesn’t ask).   The MSPD however was still the bigger and more influential party, so ended up winning the majority of delegates, heading off the Marxists once again, and the new-new government formed with Ebert still in charge. 

That day, they also agreed to accept the terms of the Armistice.  

Ebert and the MSPD were still in competition with the USPD and Spartacus, and clashes continued.  General Groener supposedly used an unknown “hotline” directly to the Chancellor’s office to cut a deal with Ebert that the Army would support the new government if the new government would prevent the dissolution of the Army and its replacement with People’s Brigades.   Later, when some Marxists surrounded the Chancellery and cut the (known) phone lines over back pay issues, Ebert used the hotline to ask Groener to come rescue him, and so a division of regular Army troops got into an artillery battle in the streets of Berlin with the Marxists.  

At this point some of the Spartacus League wanted more violence, but Luxemburg argued against it.   I gather we have to wait for January and Chapter 2 to see which way that goes.  

But overall, the process of a government falling and being replaced is well-portrayed by McDonough as quite a bit of chaos, with various people still wielding “old” power competing with a hodgepodge of radicals with “new” power and advantage staying mostly with the “old” power but in a gradually declining manner. 

This part is presented fairly clearly, and Ebert’s role is portrayed as someone trying to do what’s right but up against very challenging circumstances.   Liebknecht and Luxemburg are sober leaders saddled with a faction that sees its chance to strike for power.   The Army is portrayed as just wanting to preserve as much of its position as possible, continuing the idea that “Germany was a nation captured by an army.”

But I find it significant that the initial coup in the early days of November was conducted while the Army was deployed on the Western Front (and Imperial HQ 350 miles away from Berlin), not to mention exhausted from years of war.  But once the armistice was signed – however debilitating it may have been for Germany as a whole – it freed the Army to return home and engage with the Marxist usurpers.   Ebert was a leftist, but perhaps he was an early example of Team B, someone who saw the ruin inherent in the radicals’ plan.   The Spartacus radicals and the people they controlled demonstrated a willingness to engage in violence, so Ebert turned to the Army for support. 

The Germany Army in 1918 was maybe in a similar position to what the American Armed Forces may find themselves very soon – a formerly well-respected institution with its reputation badly damaged but still retaining some lingering support and seen as a (somewhat tarnished) symbol of what the nation used to be.  Or maybe that happened already in the 70’s in the wake of Vietnam.  Historical analogies are imperfect, but we’re clearly already in our Weimar phase. 

There were knock-on effects from the initial revolution of course.  Secondary revolutions that tried to unseat the new and untested governments across Germany, both left-er wing attempts and right-wing counter-revolutions.  All of this played out against the background of the German people – and government – slowly realizing they were going to be screwed very badly by the French and Brits, and that the Americans who promised an honorable peace were not going to live up to that promise.

to be continued in Part 2

1 Comment

  1. Great start!

    “Was this planned? Was there some coordination? How did this happen so quickly?”
    Yeah, I want to know the answers to those questions, too.
    And the people put in power, how and why were they chosen? You can’t just toss out the old systems and plug a new one in without some structure already in place.

    “He seems for the moment to think very highly of her, saying she was on an intellectual par with Marx. ”

    Thank goodness a drooling moron on par with Marx was in charge of the radical left, or Germany could have gone into the socialist pit like Russia did.

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