The German Revolution of 1918–19 and the passing of the GDR
This chapter examines views of the 1918–19 Revolution during the transition from Cold War division to German reunification in the late 1980s. It also takes the reader through the 1990s, a decade dominated by debates on the Holocaust rather than the First World War, and into the early years of the twenty-first century, a time of transition. It demonstrates that parts of the intellectual baggage of the Cold War were already being jettisoned in the period before the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, while other aspects took until 2009 or even later to cease casting a shadow over scholarly debates. Meanwhile, the peaceful revolutions in the GDR and across the Soviet bloc in 1989 also reshaped the way in which the ‘problem’ of revolution in German history – including in 1918–19 – was categorised, with less emphasis now placed on national narratives and frameworks. The chapter’s last section looks at what remains of other East German classical leftist interpretations from the mid-twentieth century, charting their continuing, albeit far from complete or irreversible, decline in the years since the end of the GDR.
The 1918–19 Revolution and efforts to construct a unified left, 1933–48
This chapter explores how the German left from the early 1930s through to the late 1940s sought to incorporate interpretations of the 1918–19 Revolution into rival visions of a post-Nazi, anti-Fascist Germany. A vast array of German leftists found themselves scattered across Europe and America as a result of political persecution at home and the outbreak of the Second World War. However, only for a brief moment, in 1943–44, did anything like a joined-up narrative bringing together social democrat, Communist and dissident Marxist views begin to emerge. Ideological tensions had already returned by 1945–46, and grew more intense as a result of political developments in early postwar Germany and Berlin. The chapter ends with a discussion of how the centenary of the 1848 Revolution and the thirtieth anniversary of the 1918–19 revolution were marked on different sides of the East–West divide in 1948.
The conclusion begins with a critique of the way that the revolution was presented in the centenary commemorations in 2018–19. Much was obscured amidst the desire to package the revolution to suit presentist concerns with reductive ‘lessons’ for democracy. Overall, the way that the centenary was handled makes it more likely that 1918–19 will remain largely forgotten and unknown as a real historical event in real historical time. Nonetheless, the conclusion does go on to suggest three areas in which research might fruitfully develop over the next two decades; a recognition that cultural determinism can bring with it an exaggerated and at times ahistorical concentration on political fragmentation at the expense of elements of cohesion; a move towards capturing unscripted ways of seeing, hearing, feeling and living the political intensity of the revolution, and thus unleashing its diverse emancipatory potential; and finally, a focus on the way in which competing or overlapping ideas about popular sovereignty were medialised and communicated in the revolution’s immediate aftermath and in the period up to the inauguration of the new constitution on 11 August 1919.
This book offers an up-to-date survey of historical writing on the German Revolution of 1918–19, focusing on debates during the Weimar, Nazi and Cold War periods, and on developments since German reunification in 1989–90. Its aim is twofold: to make a comprehensive case for seeing the revolution as a landmark event in twentieth-century German, European and world history, and to offer a multi-faceted explanation for its often peripheral place in standard accounts of the recent German past. A central argument is that the ‘cultural turn’ in historical studies from the late 1970s onwards, while shedding important new light on the gendered and spatial dimensions of the revolution, and the role of violence, has failed adequately to grasp its essential political and emancipatory character. Instead, the fragmented narratives that stem from the foregrounding of culture, identity and memory over material factors have merely reinforced the notion of a divided and failed revolution that – for different reasons – characterised pre-1945 and Cold War-era historiography. Public recognition of a handful of reductive ‘lessons’ from the revolution fails to compensate for the absence of real historical debate and sustained, contexualised understanding of how the past relates to the present. The book nonetheless sees some welcome signs of a return to the political in recent urban, transnational and global histories of the revolution, and ends with a plea for more work on the entanglements between the revolution and competing or overlapping ideas about popular sovereignty in the years immediately following the First World War.
This chapter explores post-1990s debates on the subjective experiences of ordinary Germans during the First World War and the 1918–19 Revolution, looking in particular at work by German and international scholars on men serving in the army and navy, and on women, teenagers and other non-combatants surviving on the home front. With respect to soldiers and sailors, it makes the case for examining not just battlefield experiences, but also experiences of leave from the front, service in the reserve army at home, and cases of desertion from the same. War weariness was expressed in manifold ways, but rarely through direct involvement with organised political parties. When it comes to women and teenagers, the chapter questions why, in past and present historiography, they have often been overlooked compared with men serving in the military. The chapter also tackles the issue of wartime generational identities and intergenerational conflict, concluding that the latter was less significant in the minds of contemporaries than the shared desire to end the war and address the crisis of hunger and poor living standards that was threatening to overwhelm the entire population.
This chapter investigates the impact of the turn to transnational and global methodologies on recent interpretations of the 1918–19 revolution in German and Anglo-American historiography. It focuses on the many entanglements and disconnects between events in Germany itself and new cross-border movements in the 1920s for decolonisation, Black liberation, women’s rights, gay rights, sex reform and bodily autonomy. It also highlights how comparative studies of political violence in Europe after the First World War have led to fresh interpretations of its role and significance in Germany in particular. A fourth section analyses the relevance of the recent controversy over Hedwig Richter’s 2020 book Demokratie: Eine deutsche Affäre (Democracy: A German Affair) to debates on 1918–19. At the end of the chapter, a case is made for seeing the revolution as a necessary part of Germany’s development as a liberal, open, equal, tolerant and postcolonial society in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.
This chapter examines how the German Revolution was interpreted in the first fourteen years after it took place. It looks first at views presented by military historians, including key proponents of the ‘stab-in-the-back’ legend, which blamed the revolution for Germany’s failure to find an ‘honourable’ way out of the First World War. A second section examines divisions on the Weimar-era left over the character and meaning of the revolution, whether between or within the Social Democrat and Communist camps. Finally, the chapter looks at attempts by self-proclaimed ‘non-political’ experts in the medical profession to offer an ethnological-criminological explanation of the 1918–19 Revolution (and social-biological solutions to the ‘problem’ of revolutions more generally), and demonstrates the link between their ideas and later Nazi thinking.
This chapter introduces the key aims and objectives of the book and explains its place in the MUP series Issues in Historiography. It identifies the late 1970s as a key turning point in debates on the German Revolution of 1918–19, marking a transition from political and social science to cultural history approaches, but also argues that this break should not be seen as too clean-cut or overdetermined. It further defines key terms used to frame the arguments presented in the book – ‘the new cultural history’, ‘revolutionary scripts’, ‘political imaginaries’, ‘the German Revolution’ and ‘historiography’ – as a scientific and political endeavour undertaken by professional historians who are themselves influenced by the times and places in which they live.
This chapter documents changing interpretations of the revolution of 1918–19 in West Germany from 1949 to the late 1970s. It moves from the anti-Communist consensus of the 1950s, shared by the Christian Democrats and many elements in the postwar SPD, to the critique of anti-Communism by the New Left in the early 1960s, and then on to the radical positions adopted by anti-authoritarian Marxists at the height of the student protests of the late 1960s. In the process, an explanation is offered of the differences between trade unions, councils movements, and party-dominated versions of socialism or Communism. A final section shifts the analysis forward towards the more sober and largely pro-SPD positions adopted in the 1970s, a time when West Germany was ruled by centre-left ‘social-liberal’ coalition Governments under Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt.
This chapter offers a critical account of historiography since c. 2010 on experiences of the 1918–19 Revolution in urban settings. The first section tackles the question of visual landscapes and soundscapes in general, looking particularly at how the poorest urban districts were often the sites of the greatest violence and social stigmatisation in the last weeks of 1918 and the early months of 1919. Parallels with the Paris Commune of March–May 1871 are brought into the discussion, while posters are set alongside other means of occupying public space, such as speeches containing revolutionary rhetoric or occupation of symbolically important buildings. Subsequent sections go on to look at more specific markers of the urban experience: railway stations, prisons, funeral processions and cemeteries. All of these spatial locations became sites of revolutionary experience and socialist protest in 1918–19, although the left’s battle for urban space grew increasingly defensive and less confident as time went on.