Finding Hope After the Great War

The mind is fine-tuned to see patterns and interpret intentions, but we must be careful not to over-interpret either past or present. Sometimes we might be tempted to underrate the complexities of human agency in any given time and place. When individual purposes seem not to matter, we could be ascribing too much to a perceived pattern of material conditions, institutions, or groups, and too little to the serendipity of multiple individual choices. When a historian does this, we might judge the work to be over-determined, perhaps too much driven by present considerations, or even fatalistic.

Preserving a sense of choice along with our need to understand cause and effect is daunting. When accomplished in an historical narrative, however, the lessons to be learned are among the most important of all. That is what Robert Gerwarth has achieved in his insightful new study of the founding of the Weimar Republic, November 1918: The German Revolution. The story he tells renders the time alive once again with a sense of possibility, even as most of us will recall all too vividly what came thereafter.

With each passing event, Gerwarth sets out the hopes and aspirations of the winners and losers—among the contending parties and leading statesmen, and the peoples who suffered under them. None are demonized, nor are any sanctified. But the aims of each are given as they could have been perceived had you been living at the time. At every turn, he takes pains to preserve the immediacy of the moment. The fates have not issued their verdict, judgements have not been rendered, nor the scales tipped in favor of evil. Each instance still resonates with possibility and therefore, hope. That is precisely what good historical narratives ought to accomplish.  

The lesson is not that everything follows a script, but that our choices actually matter, playing an important if limited part in the present. It is what the father of modern historical practice, Leopold von Ranke, meant when he said that each moment is “immediate to God.” Here is the hopefulness that real history imparts even to the telling of the worst of times.

And there are interesting parallels to our own day.

Like those who lived during the birth of the German Republic, we have experienced a long period of military conflict and international tension. We have experienced economic dislocation. We have seen violent urban protests and the intrusion of a mob into the capitol. And we are once more going through a pandemic.  

To be sure, with all of these similarities, there are major differences in degree. But there is also a similar sense of fatalism at work in our current ways of thinking about history, politics, economics, and society. It is in these matters that Gerwarth’s narrative speaks to us.

Seeds of Revolution

The Kaiser’s government had authoritarian elements, but it was far from absolute. Too often, in searching for the reasons for later developments, we assume continuities that suggest answers without actually proving cause to effect. Gerwarth, however, sets out mindfully to identify the democratic commitments of the Germans of the Weimar period without “viewing the events of November 1918 through the prism of Hitler’s rise to power after the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.” He does this by taking the proper measure of historical context.

Germany had an authentically modern civil society in which differences of opinion across the social spectrum could still be peacefully expressed, whether among factions of political parties from liberal to social democrats or between military and civilian authorities. Indeed, Gerwarth observes, Imperial Germany had “a constitution, an active national parliament, and independent state parliaments that controlled the respective states’ budgets.” More importantly, that civil society was vigorous enough that liberals and moderate social democrats could oversee a largely peaceful transition of power from the abdication of the Kaiser to the declaration of the republic.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of the story, to those steeped in just-so stories of Prussian militarism, is that Germans were not mindlessly obeying orders. Over the course of the war, certain ideas had spread among the troops such that the higher echelon officers were taken unawares when they ordered a suicide run on the British blockade in the final hours of the war. The sailors mutinied, and the realization soon dawned that the navy was not the only branch of the military disaffected from the Kaiser.

Opposition to continued fighting had carried from the ports to the trenches inland, capturing the attention of war-weary and malnourished land forces to the east and west. Soldiers councils formed quickly thereafter. This was especially so among the eastern troops and the home guard. In the west, in the front lines of battle, soldiers were generally less radicalized, but nevertheless equally malnourished and suffering a variety of ailments which soon included the deadly flu.

In this state of paralysis, the Kaiser’s government tried to form a new governing coalition. The hope was to negotiate peace while salvaging something of the crown’s constitutional standing, perhaps like Britain’s King-in-Parliament. An aristocrat of strong liberal inclinations before the war, Prince Max von Baden seemed a good choice for chancellor to bring such a transition about. Having been an outspoken opponent of Prussianism, he could appeal to a broad consensus in favor of peace and against violent revolution. But it was too late to save the monarchy. The more radical elements in the army would not cooperate without abdication. In this, they were joined by the moderate and peaceful wings of the Social Democrats.

The Social Democratic Party (SPD) had not long before split into two factions, The Majority Social Democrats (MSPD) and the more extreme Independent Social Democrats (USPD). Knowing that the radical faction harbored more violent elements, the MSPD warned Baden of the likely consequences should the Kaiser not step down. But how to get him to see? International developments were key.

A Negotiated Peace?

German diplomats realized they could expect little mercy from their European adversaries, but President Woodrow Wilson promised a new kind of international order, one based on principles of cooperation and non-retaliatory understandings. Initial contact between Wilson and Baden seemed quite positive. In a subsequent exchange, the U.S. president even indicated that things might go better for Germany if it expunged the arbitrary element in its government. While a bit harsher in tone, this communique implied that a reformed Germany might just stand apart from its Prussian past sufficiently to achieve a negotiated peace.

Unfortunately for Wilson and the Germans, the character of the government in Berlin mattered little to the other Entente powers who let their displeasure at Wilson’s independent bargaining be known. These were the men who would set the tone of the meetings that followed. For them, it was not a matter of the guilt or innocence of this or that general, or this or that crowned head. It would be a matter of Germany in the collective sense of the nation. But that was not yet clear to the hopeful crowds amassing in the German capital who demanded a whole new constitutional order.

Following the drafting and passage of the new constitution in Weimar, a wide range of liberal and social democratic reforms reshaped the contours of German politics.

Gerwarth presents this as an instance still open to possibilities. With radicalism on the rise among the returning troops, the government in Berlin was at a fork in the road. Nerves were frayed and there were indications that even some of the police in Berlin might themselves be going over to the protestors.

The leaders of both factions of the SPD wanted to avoid bloodshed, but the rank and file of the Independent SPD were growing restless and demonstrations daily more intense. It went without saying that the liberals under Baden wanted to avoid a Bolshevik-style revolution at all costs. Anxieties were “fueled further by Lenin’s and Trotsky’s exhortations about world revolution, the founding of communist parties across Europe, and Bolshevik-inspired putsches.” This was the situation in which the ministers for negotiating the peace arrived to meet the allied powers. Then suddenly on the ninth of November, events fell rapidly into place, and individual decisions mattered.

Removing the Kaiser

Von Baden had tried to convey the gravity of the situation to the Kaiser. The Revolution, he explained, might occur in minutes, not hours. Then a telephone call from the Imperial encampment in Belgium: “The Kaiser has resolved on abdication; you will receive the declaration within half an hour’s time.” But nothing followed. The crowds in the streets of Berlin grew to tens of thousands. Decisions were demanded, and Baden acted.  

With pressure mounting from Majority SPD leaders Friedrich Ebert and Philip Scheidemann, the chancellor declared—without imperial authorization—that the Kaiser had stepped down. At that point, Ebert took the next step, informing a surprised Baden that he would have to hand over the chancellorship immediately. Ebert gave assurances that some liberal members could remain in the government, but if the more radical SPD demonstrators and soldiers were to be placated and bloodshed avoided, the changeover would need to be now.

But no sooner had the office been transferred to Ebert, than a group of protestors and soldiers entered the capitol. At that point, Philip Scheidemann, as State Secretary of the new cabinet, took matters into his own hands. Welcoming the entering protestors, Scheidemann surprised the new Chancellor by addressing the assembled crowds in front of the Reichstag, proclaiming victory for the revolution and concluding his extempore speech with “Long live the German Republic.”

Ebert was furious. What right had Scheidemann to make such a statement? For his part, Scheidemann suspected that the more radical wing of the Independent SPD and the Communists under Karl Liebknecht were just moments away from declaring a “Free Socialist Republic of Germany” and drawing the country into the orbit of Moscow. He believed his preemptive declaration had staved off that possibility, and indeed Liebknecht’s efforts were largely neutralized, despite a momentary flare-up of violence that embarrassed the government’s troops the following month.

All this transpired on the afternoon of November 9. The vast majority of those on the streets seemed more or less placated. Violence had been averted. Here was a moment where choices mattered. The new republic was no longer the Kaiser’s Germany. Wilson’s promises beckoned. Surely things could have taken most any course at this moment, and by January, the business of creating a new constitution was well underway.

The Weimar Constitution

Following the drafting and passage of the new constitution in Weimar, largely the work of the left-liberal lawyer Hugo Preuss, a wide range of liberal and social democratic reforms reshaped the contours of German politics. As Gerwarth writes,

Formally proclaimed on 11 August 1919, the Weimar Constitution was a remarkable document, written in the spirit of liberalism, which protected basic liberties like freedom of speech and press, declared the equality of women and men, and established free and equal voting rights for all adult German citizens.

On the social side of the ledger, a whole range of safety-net programs were instituted to assure, among other things, old-age support, maternity leave, and free public schooling. Of particular interest, though, was the symbolism of Weimar as the location for the drafting of the document.

To ascribe collective guilt to the nation as a whole, without any recognition of the separate and distinctive elements composing the new government, was to radically undermine the standing of the November Revolution.

Weimar had long been considered Germany’s cultural capital, the home of Goethe and Schiller, along with many other literary and artistic greats. It heralded what seemed to be the beginning of a new and very different Germany. That symbolism is often criticized today as indicative of a non-political way of thinking that supposedly left Germany bereft of viable democratic traditions, but as Gerwarth makes clear, that was not at all the perception of the majority of Germans at the time.

At the core of German high culture was a deep appreciation for individuality and creativity that was fundamentally liberal in all the positive ways associated with the best of the western tradition since the Renaissance. To draft the country’s fundamental law in Weimar was to announce that a better, more hopeful Germany had been born, demonstrating “a new beginning to both fellow Germans and the Allies.”

Collective Judgement

Sadly, that announcement fell on deaf ears internationally, and would soon ring false to an ever-growing number of Germans themselves. Why this was the case goes to the heart of Gerwarth’s narrative.

In the penultimate chapter, aptly titled “Undermining Weimar,” the author relates the motives that prevented concessions to a “new” Germany, and the tremendous pushback against the conciliatory tones emanating from Wilson’s administration. Gerwarth wastes little space on getting directly to the controversial war guilt clause of the Versailles Treaty. It was this clause that converted what might have been technically feasible demands for reparations into a political deathtrap, incurring as it did the near-universal condemnation of the whole German political spectrum.

To ascribe collective guilt to the nation as a whole, without any recognition of the separate and distinctive elements composing the new government, was to radically undermine the standing of the November Revolution. Those who had undertaken the heavy lifting to forge the Weimar Constitution were now placed in the impossible political position of signing the treaty or continuing the starvation of the populace imposed by the British interdiction of trade. That fact deformed nearly every development that followed.

More particularly, it left the constitution’s supporters no way of saving face, robbing them even of the necessary conviction to defend the revolution without looking disingenuous or even traitorous. Indeed, acceding to the clause left the authors of republican government peculiarly vulnerable to the charge of being the enemies of the very people they were attempting to set free, for either conspiratorial or “systemic” reasons.

Collective Determinisms of Right and Left

These were very real missed chances, where decisions mattered and choices could have been different.

Gerwarth notes that the most relevant precedent for settling so vast an international conflict was not followed. The French government had been a direct participant at the Congress of Vienna which established the international order after Napoleon. This was not to be the case for the central powers, as Lloyd George admitted. If they had been included, however, it might well have gone a considerable distance in making the defense of Weimar politically more palatable. As it was, the more liberal, tolerant, and democratic middle became steadily more besieged with every new challenge.

The insistence on a collective pronouncement of guilt for the war, without any differentiation of the new republic from the old regime, had a further consequence. It elicited matching counter-responses from both the radical right and left. Both were given the peculiar facility to reject, with their own equally categorical and collective pronouncements, the collective judgement that was being extorted.

Each faction did so by tendering its own overly determined theory of either conspiracy or systemic injustice. For the aristocratic officers on the right, the war had been lost not by their own faulty judgement, but by a cabal of disloyal self-interested conspirators at home. On the left, it was “the rule of international capitalism” that had brought on the war and, in Liebknecht’s words, “transformed Europe into a morgue.”

In both cases, the assertion of collective German guilt was met by an assertion of the collective guilt of some other group, class, or system. And these various positions could be mixed and matched to suit, allowing for relatively easy movement of individuals between the radical fringes, as A. James Gregor pointed out some time ago. Gerwarth only briefly touches on this aspect, but it is there.   

Gerwarth resists giving final verdicts. He knows too well that every moment is the product of irreducibly complex interactions of both personal and social contexts.

In reality, radical socialists and radical nationalists could readily trade ideas because their political idioms were so very much alike. Each extreme expressed itself with varieties of collective nouns and qualifiers. Whether presented in terms of culture or economy, these concepts lent themselves to synthesizing along multiple trajectories. Both made the explanation of cause and effect easy to assert through formulaic, just-so narratives while at the same time offering relief from the anxieties triggered by the burden of Versailles’s collective condemnation.

Today this point is rarely considered. Many will argue that what was needed was a harsher, more punishing destruction of the country itself—a Carthaginian defeat. Gerwarth’s is a powerful tonic against such anachronistic and categorical thinking.

The chance to bolster the standing of liberals and moderate social democrats in their defense of Weimar was a missed opportunity of staggering proportions. It amounted to the liberal representatives of otherwise liberal countries throwing their like-minded counterparts to the wolves simply for having had the misfortune of being German.

After the signing of the treaty, the clashes among the extremes in the streets became more violent. While the left made the first moves to achieve early gains, the right possessed certain advantages due to international and domestic contexts. Gerwarth sets these out for the reader’s contemplation.

The more violent revolutions to the east tempered and divided the social democrats in Germany. Having witnessed the bloodshed of the revolution in Russia, most German democratic socialists grew leery of closer association with Moscow. This is what motivated Ebert and Scheidemann to distance themselves from the Independent SPD and radical Communists like Liebknecht, Karl Radek, and Ernst Niekisch.

While the street battles first went in favor of the “Red Army” as it openly declared itself, driving back government forces on Palm Sunday 1919, that was not to last. With the much-publicized execution of ten bourgeois hostages, the radicals overplayed their hand, and the reaction that came was swift and crippling.

There had been some sympathy for the more radical socialists before the declaration of autonomous soviet republics in Bremen and Munich. Afterward, fear spread of a Leninist-style terror, and as one eyewitness reported, “all red armbands suddenly disappeared.” It was for this reason that the moderate left called upon the assistance of the more radical Freikorps on the right, marking a fateful turn in the fortunes of the republic.

Nationalist Reaction

With the German center parties stuck with the humiliation of the war guilt clause and reparations, extremists of the right found better traction for their particular brand of paranoid thinking about the machinations of international and domestic interests. But even still, as Gerwarth notes, Weimar was able to preserve a basically liberal constitutional balance for most of the decade.

Various right-wing extremists undertook attempts to overturn the constitution in what was called the Kapp Putsch of 1919, and then Hitler’s own infamous Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. The failure of these, like the failure of the soviets in Bremen and Munich, underscore the fact that support for the republic remained sufficiently strong despite international and economic pressures.

The Great Depression was the final straw. Even so, it is important to recall that the majority of Germans did not vote for Hitler. Confused and exhausted, popular support was splintered over a range of other parties.

What then is the lesson of this time? Gerwarth resists giving any final verdict. Like the well-trained historian that he clearly is, he disdains all canned, deterministic answers. He knows too well that every moment is the product of irreducibly complex interactions of both personal and social contexts.

But to my mind, this is precisely where Weimar speaks to our own time.

The Real Lessons of Weimar

Deterministic, just-so stories are once again ascendant in the context of significant social stressors. The allure of such ideas, just as in Weimar, points to the processes by which we naturally associate causes to effects, motives to actions. But to the critical historian, any explanation that takes too much away from the happenstance of individual differences and choices to favor the machinations of conspiracy or “system” is suspect.

This is not to say that there aren’t bad institutions or conspiracies, but rarely, if ever, do they assume the proportions imagined by their purveyors if society remains essentially open in Karl Popper’s sense. Only when extremists themselves assume power do they actually produce the very machinations they claim to fear. The left needs now to carefully consider its own flirtation with such ideas.

Progressivists today speak of the structure and function of socio-political discourse in the production of systemic injustice, lending their assertions an air of academic sophistication. But their theories are in reality as paranoid, deterministic, and “just-so” as any conspiratorial theory on the right. The collectivist determinisms of each goads the other in an unhealthy political dialectic much like what occurred in the Weimar period.

Here then is the point Gerwarth does not make explicit, but that we all need to ponder as we consider his work. How far along such modes of thought do we want to travel?  

Gerwarth may well have written just the right book at just the right time.


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