Revolutionary Germany: how did the right of the left react?
On November 9 1918, the kaiser abdicated and Germany became a republic. One hundred years later, we publish - thanks to Ben Lewis’s translation - abridged passages from the rightwing social democratic leader, Philipp Scheidemann
These are his recollections of this historic day,1as well as his thoughts on the negotiations which gave rise to the short-lived provisional government of the two workers’ parties - Social Democrats and Independent Social Democracy.2 As with all memoirs, some of his assertions and claims are - particularly with hindsight - to be taken with a pinch of salt. Nonetheless, these memoirs provide a unique insight into the thinking and actions of the right-moving SPD leaders, as well as their political relations with others in the workers’ movement at this crucial turning point in 20th century history.
Even in the early hours of November 9 1918, the Reichstag resembled a military base. Workers and soldiers came and went. Many carried arms. I was sitting hungrily in the dining hall with [SPD leader Friedrich] Ebert, who had just come from the Reich chancellery, and other friends. Once again there was only a thin, watery soup to eat … suddenly a bunch of workers and soldiers stormed into the hall, headed straight for our table.
Fifty people cried out, all at once: “Scheidemann, please come with us immediately!” “Philipp, you have to come out and speak!”
I resisted - oh, how many speeches I had already had to give! “You must, you must, if we are to avoid disaster!” “Tens of thousands of people are waiting outside and are demanding that you speak. “Indeed, Scheidemann, come quickly, Liebknecht is speaking from the balcony of the Berlin Palace.”
“Well, so what?” I said.
“No, no. Come with us! You have to speak!”
Dozens of them pleaded with me until I followed them out.
The large foyer provided a dramatically eventful image. Rifles were stacked together in pyramid formations. In the hall, thousands of people were rushing among each other and appeared to be talking and shouting at the same time.
We hurried to the reading room. I wanted to speak to the masses from the window. On both sides I could hear the voices of those who had accompanied me. They were trying to inform me about events on the streets. They assured me that enormous masses of people were moving back and forward between the Berlin palace and the Reichstag.
“Liebknecht wants to declare the soviet republic!”
I now saw the situation clearly before me. I was familiar with his demand of “All power to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils!” So Germany was to become a Russian province, a Soviet subsidiary? No! A thousand times no!
No doubt whoever could mobilise the masses with his slogan - whether in a ‘Bolshevik’ fashion from the palace, or in a ‘social democratic’ manner from the Reichstag - would be victorious!
I saw the Russian madness before me - the replacement of the tsarist reign of terror with that of the Bolsheviks. “No! No! Anything but that too on top of all the other suffering in Germany!” I said.
I was now standing at the window. Many thousands of arms reached out in order to wave their hats and caps. The cry of the masses echoed powerfully in my direction. Then things went quiet. I only spoke a few sentences, which were received with great applause:
Workers and soldiers! The four years of war were terrible. Horrific was the price the people had to pay in terms of blood and possessions. The ill-fated war has now come to an end. The murdering is over. The consequences of the war, the hardship and suffering, will be a burden on us for many years to come.3 Nor have we been spared military defeat, which we wanted to prevent at all costs, because our negotiation proposals were sabotaged. We ourselves were mocked and defamed.
The real ‘enemy within’ is those enemies of the working people who are responsible for Germany’s collapse. They have become invisible and silent. They are the ‘home-front warriors’ who, right up until yesterday, upheld their demands for military conquests with the same vehemence with which they conducted their bitter struggle against any constitutional reform - particularly against the reform of the disgraceful Prussian electoral system. These enemies of the people have hopefully now been taken care of for good.4 The kaiser has abdicated. He and his friends have disappeared. The people has prevailed over them all along the line.
Prince Max von Baden has now handed his office of imperial chancellor over to deputy Ebert. Our friend will form a workers’ government, to which all socialist parties will belong. The new government must not be hindered in its work for peace, in its concern for work and bread.
Workers and soldiers! Be conscious of the historic significance of this day. Unheard-of things have happened. We have immense work to do.
Everything for the people - everything through the people! Nothing can be allowed to happen which dishonours the workers’ movement. Be united, faithful and conscious of your duties!
The old and rotten, the Germany monarchy, has collapsed. Long live the new! Long live the German Republic!
Sheer, endless jubilation. Then the masses made their way towards the palace. The Bolshevik wave, which threatened our fatherland on this day, was broken! The German Republic had become a living reality in the hearts and minds of the masses.
Five minutes later
Immediately after my speech I had returned to the dining hall, in order to salvage the rest of my watery soup. I have never spoken a word of the scene which then occurred. Indeed, had Felden not described it in his book on Ebert,5 I would never have said anything about it at all. Several workers and soldiers who had come back into the now rather empty dining hall with me really were in ‘high spirits’, as Prince Max would have put it, and cried out: “Scheidemann has declared the republic!”
Let us now look at what Felden - who can only have been informed about this by Ebert himself, or one of his closest friends - has to say about this in his book.
Ebert is appalled and cries to his friend: “That was wrong. The Constituent Assembly will decide on the future state form!”
Unfortunately, this scene was not as friendly and peaceful as Felden’s description has it. When he heard of what I had done, Ebert’s face flushed dark red with anger. He banged his fist on the table and screamed at me: “Is it true?” When I responded that “it” was not only true, but self-evident, he made a scene, which puzzled me: “You have no right to declare the republic! What shall become of Germany - a republic or anything else - will be decided by a Constituent Assembly.” How could such a clever man incorrectly assess a situation to such an extent that, even on November 9, he was still speaking of imperial regents, proxy imperial vicars and other totally finished monarchical rubbish?
Now, many years on from that day, I understand Ebert’s behaviour better. Now there are several books and other reports, from which it is evident that back then secret discussions, of which I knew nothing, were taking place on the monarchy, the republic, finding a stand-in for the kaiser and so on. Ebert thus felt bound to these discussions to a certain extent. This was not the case for me or the SPD.
Prince Max explains that, on the afternoon of November 9, he was still being urgently beseeched by Ebert to stay in Berlin.6 When the prince asked Ebert what purpose it would serve for him to stay in the capital, Ebert is supposed to have said: “I would like you to remain as imperial vicar”.7 Prince Max von Baden as imperial vicar! Who here must not think of the National Assembly’s resolution in 1848, which renounced the use of revolutionary power and chose an imperial vicar! Back then it was Archduke John [of Austria] who was selected - this time it should have been a prince from Baden! It strikes me that Prince Max had judged the situation correctly when, on the evening of November 9, he asked me for certification for a convoy, so that he could clear off to his beautiful homeland. In a most detailed and extensive discussion of Prince Max’s book,8 published in 1927 in volume 9 of Gesellschaft, Hermann Müller claims that, as far as he knows, Ebert spoke to nobody else about this episode. Müller claims that he is unable to refute Max’s account of what happened, but assumes that “Ebert made this proposal, because [Konrad] Haussmann9 had encouraged him to do so”. The prince, continues Müller, was unable to take up any position. Ebert’s offer, according to Müller, can “thus only be viewed as an act of excessive politeness”. In light of my experience in those critical days, I am unable to refute either Müller’s portrayal of these events or Max von Baden’s.
The varying assessment of the situation on November 9 itself can be explained with reference to the following facts. When I declared the republic, I had spoken of a “workers’ government” and, before this, had already said: “Ebert will form a government, to which all socialist parties will belong”. I considered all that to be self-explanatory. But, when the first announcement signed by “imperial chancellor Ebert” appeared, it read:
The previous imperial chancellor, prince Max von Baden, has handed to me, with the consent of all the secretaries of state, responsibility for handling the affairs of the imperial chancellor. I am about to form the new government in accordance with the parties.
There can be no doubt that Ebert’s first announcement was drafted by a representative of the old regime, without the consultation of a social democratic advisor. The last chancellor had handed over to our comrade “the handling of the affairs of the imperial chancellor”, just as “his majesty, the kaiser” had once handed me (I quote) “the handling of the affairs of a secretary of state”. And, of course, Ebert was commissioned “with the consent of all the secretaries of state”. So as not to make this revolutionary image even more grotesque, I will not list all of these secretaries, who included the arch-reactionary [Prussian general] Herr [Friedrich] von Waldow. It is immediately obvious that the declaration of the republic was incompatible with such strange ‘constitutional’ conceptions and occurrences.
Ebert, incidentally, corrected his erroneous assessment of the situation overnight - all in keeping with his gift for ‘tactics’. The November 11 edition of Vorwärts already reported an interview which Ebert had given to a representative of the Hollandsch Nieuws Büro on the previous day, in which he states:
Germany has completed its revolution … Now even the biggest doubters will have to recognise that monarchism and imperialism in Germany is over for good … Germany’s future state form is the republic.
As much as I was happy to read the final two sentences of this interview, by equal measure I could not agree with that first one.
After Ebert had taken over the chancellorship from Prince Max, he naturally had to ensure - using all means at his disposal - that, by Monday morning at the latest, a government was up and running which could sign the conditions for peace.10 Otherwise enemy armies would have broken into Germany. Serious resistance on the part of the German troops was inconceivable.
The unity with which the SPD immediately placed itself behind Ebert was only matched by the scatterbrain response of the USPD. We in the SPD had quickly arrived at complete agreement. The government should consist of three representatives from the SPD and the USPD respectively. The current secretaries of state, as the leaders of their specialist ministries, should be asked to continue in their posts. I was to join the cabinet alongside Ebert and Landsberg. I constantly warned the USPD members about the short time period for the armistice and called on them to join the government. Hour after hour passed and they delayed their decision.
When, on the evening of November 9 they were still talking and talking - no surprise, by the way, for it was [Karl] Liebknecht who was setting the tone in these discussions - I burst into their fraction’s meeting room with the workers Brolat and [Gustav] Heller. Even before this hesitation, a few members of the USPD had spoken to me of their displeasure at the behaviour of their parliamentary fraction. [Rudolf] Breitscheid affirmed unconditionally our proposal to form a joint government and to convene a National Assembly as soon as it was feasible to do so.
When Brolat, Heller and I entered the room, we were greeted by unpleasant scenes. Almost all of those present were talking and gesticulating in a lively manner. Evidently, most intense discussions had been taking place, in which - as our subsequent discussions would make clear - the ‘radicals’ had prevailed. In the centre of it all stood Liebknecht, who, as spokesman, was the only one who would negotiate with us. He was prepared to join a government with us for three days, under the following condition: “All legislative, executive and judicial power to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils.” At that moment in time, he obviously could not come up with any further ingenious proposals like this one. Back then, Liebknecht immediately struck me as ridiculous. In this situation I simply could not understand the USPD. When I asked how it came to pass that Liebknecht was the sole negotiator, even though he was not even a member of the USPD, I was told: ‘He is now one of us’.
Eduard Bernstein, who took part in this meeting as a member of the USPD, vividly describes this scene in his book on the German Revolution.11On Liebknecht, he writes:
In the afternoon he, at the head of his supporters, raised the red flag and, from a window of the palace, addressed the mass of people below him - densely packed together, shoulder to shoulder - with a revolutionary speech which elicited jubilant applause and endless cheers.
In a footnote, Bernstein adds:
Until that point, for all the extensive differences of opinion between us, I had great sympathy for Karl Liebknecht. But when he prepared to force upon the party [USPD] the Bolsheviks’ system, a thought came upon me like a flash of lightning - he’s going to bring us the counterrevolution.
Bernstein says that I had spoken in an “almost fatherly tone”. Liebknecht’s speech from the palace window, which Bernstein writes of in that passage, is probably the same one I had brought to a premature end in my speech from the Reichstag.
SPD and USPD
In the meeting of the SPD fraction, I immediately described my experience with the USPD fraction. I did not sugar-coat anything in my report, but - and this was not at all easy for me - urged patience. Since, in the meantime, the demands of the USPD had finally been written down and brought to us, we answered immediately.12 Our response also shows what we were demanding:
Guided by the sincere desire to arrive at unity, we feel obliged to set out our fundamental attitude to your demands. You demand:
1. “Germany is to become a social republic.”
This is the aim of our own policies too. However, a Constituent Assembly must decide on this.
2. “In this republic, the entirety of executive, legislative and judicial power is to be exclusively in the hands of elected representatives of the working people and the soldiers.”
If, by this demand, you mean the dictatorship of a section of a class, which is not supported by the majority of the people, then we must reject it, since it contradicts our democratic principles.
3. “The exclusion of all bourgeois members from the government.”
We must reject this demand, for its realisation would severely jeopardise our ability to feed the people, and perhaps even make it impossible.
4. “The participation of the USPD in the cabinet will only apply for three days, as a provisional measure, in order to create a government which is able to conclude an armistice.”
We consider it essential that there is cooperation between the socialist tendencies at least until the Constituent Assembly convenes.
5. “The department ministers are viewed merely as technical assistants to the actual cabinet, which makes the decisions.”
We agree to this demand.
6. “Equal representation of the socialist parties in the cabinet.”
We are in favour of all members of cabinet being represented equally by the socialist parties. However, a Constituent Assembly must decide on this.
The USPD had finally come to see reason. Liebknecht was outnumbered. On the next morning [November 10], a deputation brought us the following reply:
In order to consolidate the revolutionary socialist gains of the revolution, the USPD is prepared to join the cabinet on the following conditions:
The cabinet is to be made up exclusively of social democrats, who are people’s commissars with equal rights. This does not apply to holders of ministerial portfolios. These are mere technical assistants to the cabinet, which alone determines policy. Each ministry is controlled by two members of the social democratic parties, with equal powers. The participation of the USPD in the government, to which each party will each send three members, is not limited to a particular period of time.
Political power is to be in the hands of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, which will very soon be convened to a meeting representing the whole Reich. The question of the constituent assembly will not be posed before the new order, which is today being established by the revolution, has been consolidated, and it will be the subject of later discussions. In the event that you accept these conditions, which are dictated by the desire for a united proletariat, we have delegated our members, [Hugo] Haase, [Wilhelm] Dittmann and [Emil] Barth, to join the cabinet.
With this step, great difficulties had initially been removed. We agreed to their offer, particularly with regard to the terrible distress our country found itself in. Even before that afternoon, when the Busch Circus assembly in Berlin - attended by more than 3,000 workers and soldiers - had given its consent to the new government of Ebert, Scheidemann and [Otto] Landsberg, Dittmann, Haase and Barth, this government had already started to function in order to sign the armistice conditions.
1. P Scheidemann Memoiren eines Sozialdemokraten Vol 2, Hamburg 2010 , pp244-53. I have added some sub-headings, so as to break up the original text.
2. For an overview of these events, see B Lewis, ‘Storming the fortress’ Weekly Worker November 1.
3. As were, one should add, the consequences of the Burgfrieden (fortress peace) concluded between Scheidemann’s SPD and the war effort!
4. This, of course, was far from the case. Indeed, the SPD’s collusion with elements of the old regime - not least the military - would soon have counterrevolutionary consequences.
5. E Felden Eines Menschen Weg: Friedrich Eberts Leben Bremen 1927.
6. It was Baden who had proclaimed Kaiser Wilhelm’s abdication as a last-ditch attempt to save the German monarchy. As Scheidemann’s memoirs underline, however, later that same day, prince Max realised that he too had to go.
7. A strange-sounding term with origins in the Holy Roman Empire, which had an elective monarchy. The role of imperial vicar was a kind of caretaker monarch. It was often carried out by a prince during the time period between the death of an old king or emperor and the convocation of all the kingdom’s electors, who would decide upon a new monarch. This is the sense in which Ebert’s proposals should be understood.
8. A reference to Max von Baden’s memoirs: M von Baden Errinerungen und Dokumente Stuttgart1927.
9. Konrad Haussmann was one of the secretaries of state in Max von Baden’s government of progressives, National Liberals and Social Democrats, which was formed on October 4 1918 in order to conclude the war and undermine a revolution from below by broadening the government’s support in the population. Haussmann was a founding member of the Deutsche Demokratische Partei, which contested the elections in January 1919 and, consequently, formed a coalition government with the SPD and the Catholic Centre Party.
10. This refers to the Allied demands for peace with Germany, which have gone down in history as Woodrow Wilson’s ‘14 points’, to be addressed by a post-war German regime. Interestingly, in June 1919 Scheidemann resigned from his post as chancellor as an expression of his opposition to Germany signing the Treaty of Versailles.
11. E Bernstein Die deutsche Revolution: ihr Urpsrung, ihr Verlauf und ihr Werk Berlin 1921. Sadly, this centrist’s eye-witness account of the revolution is still not available in English.
12. According to Pierre Broué, the response of the USPD was received by the SPD leaders at 8pm on November 9. The USPD had received the counter-demands Scheidemann cites here within an hour - P Broué The German Revolution Leiden 2005, p150.