Weimar Republic

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A very brief note on the German Revolution of 1918 and its outcome in the Weimar Republic in 1919

One of the left's theoretical and political concerns throughout its history has been the incessant quest to understand the great events of political and social struggles. Among these are the revolutionary processes. From Marx in the insurrections in France in 1848 to the recent works of Jodi Dean on the relations between the insubmissive people and the party, the attempt to understand intense moments of class disputes was part of the intellectual culture of the left.

Resuming, even if briefly, events like these for our reflections, is sometimes more suggestive than analyzing the daily chants about the “policy of chanceries” (Perry Anderson) – which, invariably, are “conservative”, from an institutional-elitist perspective and unimaginative. It is not a question of naive contempt for demonic politics to speak with Max Weber, because that is also where, and perhaps above all, the interests of the class struggle are at stake; it is about stimulating moments of shock reflective-practical and to open fissures in the present so that the experience against the grain of history emerges and makes it possible to envision an emancipated horizon (Walter Benjamin).

In one way or another, intellectually, reflexively and politically, we exercise little in this axis of investigating revolutions: both the victorious ones, such as the Russian one in 1917, with the not so successful ones like the German one in subsequent years – and many others. like that of the Haitians, the Cubans, and the recent ones like the Arab Spring and our June 2013 (which, let's say, is 10 years old). That said, below I present a very brief note on the German Revolution of 1918 and its outcome in the Weimar Republic in 1919.


After the beginning of the First World War, European societies saw the appearance of a series of protest movements by the States and the ruling classes that led their peoples to an unjustified slaughter from the point of view of all workers in the city and countryside. In the terms of Alex Callinicos, the insurrectional processes from below that swept the continent in that period was the response to the fact “that the entire European state system was thrown into a general crisis [with the advent] of the First World War” (1992). , p. 35).

It is in this context that the Russian Revolution of 1917 erupts. On the one hand, the episode in Russia had been the most emblematic of a “series of upheavals that shook[ed]” (Ibidem) Europe; on the other, the uprising of the soviets and the Bolsheviks turned into what Eric Hobsbawm called the world revolution (2007). Its impact was not only ecumenical – as the French Revolution of 1789 had been – but theoretical, political and cultural.

With this status and in the whirlpool that hit Europe – expansive waves erupted in the wake of the Russian event. The revolution, Trotsky said, “began in the east […] [in] Russia, passed into Hungary, and from Hungary passed into Bavaria [in Germany]” ([1919] 2000, p. 181). The German Revolution of 1918 was among the political and social events that revolved around that historical moment after the First World War and after the Russian Revolution of 1917. In pre-Weimar Germany, it was the Prussian State that held political predominance in the institutional organization of the nation, and the dominant group there was the “aristocracy junker with its arrogant caste spirit that extended to the Armed Forces and the state bureaucracy” (LOUREIRO, 2005, p. 29). However, with the rapid development of German capitalism, society would undergo transformations that would make this “political structure […] an anachronism” (Ibidem).

In the period from 1871 to 1914 the population grew by around 50% – “from 41 million to 67 million inhabitants” (Ibidem) –; an accelerated increase that profoundly altered the social and cultural landscape of the country. It is important to underline in this historical frame of reference the fact that this accelerated development made “young people abandon[[]] the countryside in search of opportunities in the industrial centers”. Thus, the urban population was formed in the Reich – and “of 44 million people, 66% […] belonged to the working class […]” (Ibidem, p. 30). At that time, it was concentrated in high-end capitalism: in the steel, chemical and electricity sectors (Ibidem).

With this socio-historical scenario, permeated by the 1914 war, Germanic societies plunged into a cataclysmic political crisis. The 1918-1919 revolution takes its place on the political stage of events. Scheidemann, moderate social-democratic deputy proclaims the German Republic in front of the Reichstag on November 08, 1918 (Ibidem); and “two hours later […] Karl Liebknecht, son of the legendary founder of German social democracy, radical deputy released from prison 15 days ago, proclaims the German Socialist Republic” (Ibidem, p. 41).

Although expressing different political positions, Scheidemann and Liebknecht echoed in their pronouncements one of the most important revolutionary movements of the entire 1917th century. It could be said that the fate of socialism, in a sense, was being cast in those two insurrectionary years. Reflecting the October 28 revolution in Russia that brought the soviets of workers', peasants' and soldiers' deputies to power (driven by the Bolsheviks), the uprising in Germany began with the Berlin strike on January 1918, 50. five thousand workers in the “ammunition” industries (Ibidem, p. 4141) paralyzed work – and “elect 11 delegates, who in turn elect a strike committee of XNUMX members, all coming from the nucleus of revolutionary delegates” (Ibidem) .

However, from the beginning, what became known as the councillorist (and also Spartacist) revolution faced the conciliatory and anti-insurrectionary position of the moderate wing of the German social-democratic party. The majorities with “Ebert at the head” (Ibidem) already at the beginning of the revolution acted with the convinced, planned and, fundamentally, “declared objective of controlling […]” (Ibidem) the action of the councils and of those who acted there: as the Spartacist League led by Rosa Luxemburg. Indeed, during the course of the revolutionary process from 1918 to 1919 (the peak period and workers' radicalization) there was a dispute between the action of the councils and those who acted and defended them and the practices and rhythms of parliamentary democracy.

Since the aim of this article is not to analyze the German revolution in depth, and hence its problems, scope and historical and political experiences, suffice it to say that the dispute between the radicals, the Spartacist insurgents of Rosa Luxemburg, Leo Jogiches and Karl Liebknecht and the parliamentary-democratic group of (majoritarian) social-democracy led with the bureaucratic iron hand of Ebert, Noske and Scheidemann – the latter emerged victorious for that moment. In the end, “the coalition of order against the councils and the radical left, which defended the continuity of the revolution” (Loureiro, 2005, p. 75) triumphed. It is in this context that the Weimar Constitution is approved: establishing the foundations of what later became known as the Weimar Republic.

The National Assembly that drafted the constitutional document was convened after the January 19 elections. Only the new Communist Party did not participate in the process of choosing constituents. Voter turnout was 82,7%. The others received the following percentages of votes: the SPD (German Social Democratic Party) had 37,9% was the party with the greatest strength, the USPD (Independent Social Democracy) appeared with 7,6% – the two formed a coalition of centre-left, social democrat. The moderate bourgeois parties obtained the following figures: the DDP (German Democratic Party) won 18,6%, the Zentrum (Center Party) 19,7%. As for the right, adding the two parties reached around 15% of the votes – the DVP (German People's Party) received 4,4% and the DN (German National Party) 10,3%.

Thus, it is possible to observe that even if the parties of the center-left, social democracy and independent social democracy joined forces, they would have immense difficulty in obtaining majorities to carry out their political, social and economic projects. This was aggravated by the fact that the two parties were not radical groupings that could rely on the insubordination of German workers who, even in a phase of relative stabilization of political subjectivity, were still willing to fight for their demands. The SPD itself had been a party of “order” since the most incandescent days of the councilor insurrection of 1918.

Although the social-democratic coalition for order won the dispute with the radicals, revolutionaries and council members, the turmoil of the period did not cease. It was in this profoundly unstable environment that: [if] the elections for the National Assembly were held on January 19, 1919 […] [and] on February 06 [of the same year] the National Assembly of Weimar was inaugurated [and in ] On July 31, the Constitution was approved by the National Assembly and signed on August 11 by the President of the Reich (RÜRUP, 1992, pp. 141, 142 and 155).

The Weimar political-institutional experiment could not fail to express the convulsive scenario that Germany was going through, and, in a way, all the problems it faced stemmed from that. Thus, when Hugo Preuss and Max Weber advised the introduction of Article 48 in the Weimar Constitution – this legal provision “gave the President of the Reich […] exceptional powers” ​​(LOUREIRO, 2005, p. 112) whenever “security and safety public order are seriously disturbed or threatened [so that he] can take the necessary measures in order to restore security and public order [own]” (BOLSINGER, 2001, p. 62), and for this to be effective the president may intervene even “with the support of the armed forces” (Ibidem) – he had a country and a highly conflicted political situation on the horizon.

When political science looks at the problems of multi-party political systems and the way they govern through wavering, frivolous, indecisive and precarious coalitions: the haunting image they come up with is that of Weimar in the period 1919-1933. inconvenient. Germany would still have to face, even with the relative stabilization provided by the Weimar Republic's defense of the moderate parliamentary policy of majority social democracy, with the March action. This was actually the offensive called for by the KPD towards “the general strike and the preparation of armed resistance” (ALMEIDA, 1990, p. 36), however, it resulted in defeat for those who undertook it: the “repression befell the party that lost about 200.000 militants, dissatisfied with the line followed” (Ibidem, p. 37) and with the arrest and death of his comrades.

In this context, the figure of the Jews plays a fundamental role. Within the framework of the Weimar crisis, the Jews, who were a distinct cultural and linguistic group embedded within German society itself, were constructed as the enemy of the nation. Germanic nationalism, which gave spiritual form to the state in Germany since the times of the unification of 1866 articulated to “secret paramilitary associations” (Ibidem, p. 35) saw in the Hebrew peoples the reason for their problems. Mass unemployment, public debt (resulting from obligations for defeat in the First World War), inflation and exorbitant poverty made the Jews with the history they brought – which Hannah Arendt herself described so well in the first part of the The origins of totalitarianism – in the pseudos responsible for that state of affairs with the narrative constructed by the Nazi elite.

The mood was explosive. And what distressed many sectors of German society was the inability of state institutions to face the problems arising from this political and social scenario. One of the reasons for the institutional incompetence in Germany in resolving the crisis originated in the hollowing out of parliamentary values ​​and practices. Thus, concerning the interests of the German economic, political, intellectual and cultural elites. (and Jewish sectors also having to be included there) their position was that of anti-juno: because courting the whole of Germanic and European societies they transformed themselves into democratic figures, adepts of the virtues of the republic, cultivators of equality between social groups, prone to consensus of nations and convictions about the importance of laws in political life.

However, with the worsening of the crisis, the options of the ruling classes in Germany were restricted either to living with the risk of an October in their own country or the convergence of interests with Hitlerism. It didn't take long for them to opt for an attack on “Weimar democracy” (ALMEIDA, 1990, p. 110). Hindenburg who had been re-elected in 1932 dismissed the “leader of the government”, the social democrat Braun, the Catholic conservative, the baron de Von Papen was appointed “as Reich commissioner for Prussia” (Ibid. p. 111) and ruled for decrees based on article 48 of the Weimar constitution, which, as we said earlier, was introduced into the final document at the insistence of Hugo Preuss and Max Weber – “next to the Reichstag was the President of the Reich, whose position and function were very controversial in the deliberations on the Constitution [ …] the strong president proposed by the […] [two], directly elected by the people, should be an authentic counterweight to the Reichstag [since he would be acting based on] article 48, so controversial” (RÜRUP, 1992, p. 150 and 152) – and it can be said that the fate of the Germans (and the Jews) was sealed when the SA was legalized, causing a wave of murders and violence, demonstrating what would become the Nazi terror supported by the elites.

For the purposes of this article, it is important to say that Jews and German Jews were initially expelled from their posts (work, political parties, universities, cultural life); and in the years following the start of World War II, without rights, and seen as the nation's enemies, they were sent to Nazi concentration camps. In early 1933 Adolf Hitler took over the German state – after revolutions and counterrevolutions. The fate of the German working class, the world revolution and socialism was ruined. Perhaps the understanding of the difficulties we face today in the tireless search for a horizon free of all exploitation, oppression, racism, homophobia and machismo, in a nutshell, an emancipated existence free from the bourgeois order and capital, lies in the tragic destiny of the German Revolution of 1918.

*Ronaldo Tadeu de Souza is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science at USP.


Alex Callinicos – The Revenge of History: Marxism and the Revolutions of Eastern Europe, Jorge Zahar Editor, 1992;

Angela Mendes de Almeida – The Weimar Republic and the Rise of Nazism, Peace and Land, 1990;

Eckard Bolsinger – The Exercise of State Power in Times of Political Crisis: a theoretical approach from Carl Schmitt and the Weimar Republic. In: Graciela Medina and Carlos Mallorquín – Hacia Carl Schmitt: irresuelto (Coord.) Benemérita Univeridad Autónoma de Puebla, 2001;

Eric Hobsbawm- Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, Companhia das Letras, 2007;

Isabel Loureiro – The German Revolution: 1918-1923, Unesp, 2005;

Perry Anderson – The Intransigent Right at the End of the Century. In: Perry Anderson- Selective Affinities, Boitempo, 2002,

Reinhard Rürup – Genesis and Foundations of the Constitution of Weimar. In: Juan José Carreras Ares (Ed.), The German State (1970-1992), Martial Pons, 1992;

Leon Trotsky – En Camino; considerations concerning the advance of the proletarian revolution. In: Leon Trotsky – The Theory of the Permanent Revolution, CEIP, 2000;

Walter Benjamin – On Some Themes in Baudelaire. In: Col. The Thinkers (Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Jürgen Habermas), April Culture, 1975.

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