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Friedrich Ebert

Ebert, the Masses, and the German Revolution, 1918-1919

Book Essay on: Sebastian Haffner, Failure of a Revolution: Germany 1918-1919
(Berne: Andre Deutsch, 1973), 201 pages. UCSB: DD248.H2713

by Robin Garnham
March 23, 2009

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Spring 2009

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Get it at amazon.com

About Robin Garnham

I am an Education Abroad Program student from the United Kingdom. I am studying Modern and Contemporary History at Queen Mary College, University of London. My interest in the topic stemmed from the fact that I was aware of the topic, and the debate on what role it played in the failure of Weimar democracy, but I had little knowledge of the actual events in Germany in 1918-1919.

Abstract (back to top)

The paper addresses the failure of the German Revolution in the years 1918-1919, and the argument put forward on why the revolution failed by Sebastian Haffner. The paper questions Haffner's assertion that the failure of the revolution was caused primarily by the actions of Friedrich Ebert, the SPD leader. Haffner argues that Ebert conspired with the traditional German elites in order to bring about the downfall of the revolution that wanted to rid Germany of the monarchy, the conservative bureaucracy, and the old elites. The paper concludes that Haffner's interpretation places too much emphasis on the role of Ebert and not enough on the role of the revolutionary masses in the revolution's failure. The workers installed as their leader someone who was determined to bring about the revolution's demise. Therefore, a more balanced conclusion of events showing the role that both Ebert and the workers played is presented.

Essay (back to top)

Sebastian Haffner’s Failure of a Revolution is an examination of the political events that occurred in Germany in the years 1918-1919, and their aftermath. Haffner’s work relies very heavily on political and military memoirs, although no citations are made. The main question that the book addresses is: who was responsible for the failure of the revolution? Haffner emphasizes the role of Friedrich Ebert, as the leader of the SPD and later as chancellor. He argues that Ebert enlisted the help of the old elites, especially the armed forces, in an attempt to maintain the status quo, and that that was the primary reason for the failure of the revolution. This paper, however, argues that the reason for the failure of the revolution was the fact that the revolutionary masses, which wanted to abolish the monarchy, armed forces hierarchy, the bureaucracy, and the old elites, put someone at their helm who was determined to maintain those institutions.

Haffner at first sketches a brief history of the SPD, and details the position it found itself in 1918, and why it found itself there. He argues that by 1918 the SPD had grown into parliamentary democracy and no longer had any strong ties with its revolutionary beginnings. In other words, the SPD ‘had become socially acceptable’ (Haffner, 18). In his 1955 book Rudolf Coper supports this argument, but goes further and points to the fact that revolution, as a tool for gaining political power, had effectively been renounced by the Erfurt Program of 1891 (Coper, 18). The fact that the SPD had renounced revolution as a tool for gaining political power was well known. Therefore, the course that Ebert took during the revolution was unsurprising, and as a result it was a mistake for the revolutionary masses to look to the SPD for leadership, which is exactly what it did. In arguing so strongly that Ebert was at fault ‘Haffner neglects such vital factors as the parliamentary tradition of the Social Democrats’ (Wurgraft, 430). In other words, it would have been a reversal of policy to have actively supported the complete overthrow of the old order in 1918, and Ebert’s attempt to preserve the old system could, and should, have been predicted by the revolutionaries.

On 29 September 1918 Erich von Ludendorff secretly handed power to the SPD. Haffner maintains that Ludendorff wanted to prevent both a military defeat and a revolution, and that he sought to achieve this by handing power over to a socialist coalition (Haffner, 30-36). Ludendorff’s aim was to let the SPD take the blame for the loss of the war and any unsavory peace settlement, so as to discredit the SPD and to leave himself relatively untarnished by defeat (Haffner, 38). The plan was only partially successful, however, because the majority of the SPD’s supporters also wanted peace. This is demonstrated in the way that the revolution started. The sailors at Kiel mutinied on 29 October 1918 because they wanted an end to the war, whereas their officers wanted to preserve their honor with one last naval battle (Haffner, 49). Therefore, both Ebert and the revolutionary masses wanted an end to the war and were not at odds with each other at this point.

While both the revolutionaries and Ebert agreed that ending the war was the primary goal, their reasons for wanting to end it quickly were rather different. The workers were tired of the war and wanted it to cease so as to end the deprivations of war. On the other hand, by late October 1918 Ebert was in agreement with the Kaiser, the High Command, and the Chancellor and SPD leaders that the war needed to be ended so as to prevent the spread of revolution. Haffner states that ‘rolling back the movement – that, during Revolution week, was the only occupation of the three centers of power left in Germany’ (Haffner, 63-4). This shows that although it may have appeared as though Ebert’s policies were in line with those of the workers, the truth was that they were more in line with the aims of the old elites. These elites were in a favorable position to aid Ebert in bringing about the demise of the revolution.

Although Ebert wanted an end to the war, unbeknown to the workers, he also wanted also to maintain the monarchy. Haffner argues that Prince Max von Baden, the Chancellor, and Ebert were both in agreement that the Kaiser needed to abdicate in order to stop the revolution. Ebert, however, did not want the Kaiser to abdicate. Haffner quotes Ebert as stating that ‘unless the Kaiser abdicates, the social revolution is inevitable. But I will have none of it, I hate it like sin.’ Ebert wanted to suppress the revolution in order to save the monarchy (Haffner, 66). The monarchy could not be saved, but the split demonstrates how the aims of the workers and Ebert were already diverging before 9 November, and how closely aligned with the traditional elites Ebert was.

On 9 November 1918 Ebert concluded a pact with General Groener that was tantamount to an alliance between the armed forces and the new government. Haffner berates Ebert for concluding the pact (Haffner, 100). On the other hand, Shepardson argues that both Ebert and Groener had to enter into the pact out of necessity (Shepardson, 122). Considering Ebert’s aims, however, it was not surprising that he entered into the pact; without the support of the armed forces the new SPD government was bound to fail. According to Haffner Ebert concluded the pact with Groener because they both wanted to bring an end to the workers councils, which were established in late October and early November, and they both wanted to prevent a Bolshevik revolution. They wanted a return of order and a national assembly along the lines of the pre-war model. Groener and Ebert agreed to ‘fight against radicalism and Bolshevism, an end as soon as possible to the ‘councils nonsense’, a National Assembly, [and] a return to ‘a state of order. Ebert was able to agree to all this with real feeling; it was exactly what he wanted’ (Haffner, 101). On the very day that Ebert assumed the leadership of the revolution, he was also conspiring with a figurehead of the old regime to bring about the demise of the revolution. Haffner states that 9 November was ‘the day when the revolution installed the man who was determined to stifle it’ (Haffner, 68).

One of the first actions of the revolution was the establishment of soldiers’ councils and workers’ councils. As a whole the councils were incapable of governing adequately. Haffner, however, does not address this point, he merely criticizes Ebert for not supporting the councils (Haffner, 91). Considering Ebert’s past, however, it seems perfectly reasonable that he opposed the council system, while at the same time trying to maintain power by participating in it. In fact, Ebert’s intention was to undermine the revolution, and the very reason that he engaged with the revolutionaries and became the People’s Commissar was so that he could undermine the revolution from within (Haffner, 100). When the revolutionary workers and soldiers tried to radically change the nature of the government that Ebert headed, Ebert was the one who undermined it. He established himself in the revolutionary councils, while at the same time maintaining close relations with those involved in organizing the Freikorps, especially Groener. While the soldiers and sailors were tearing off their insignia of rank (Haffner, 103), Ebert was concluding a pact with Groener to preserve the armed forces hierarchy. Perhaps the workers should have realized that Ebert was not completely behind their aims when he went to inspect Freikorps formations with General Seekt in late November 1918 (Haffner, 33).

Haffner sees the failure to effect a sweeping change of personnel in the German government as one of the revolution’s major failures (Haffner, 102). Most of the burocrats, diplomats, and technocrats were left in place, and on 10 November continued their work as usual. In fact Ebert tried to save the old state ‘that was threatened with disaster from its own incompetence’ (Coper, 35). By placing himself at the head of the revolution, Ebert was able to ensure that the revolution did not significantly undermine the old state, which is what it needed to do in order to be successful. In this respect, the council system had the power to do away with the old state, but because it had put Ebert as its head, he was able prevent it from doing so. Haffner at every stage berates Ebert for undermining the revolution, but the failure of the workers to unify made Ebert’s job a lot easier (Haffner, 125). As events continued it became clear that the aims of the SPD rank-and-file were irreconcilable with those of the leadership. This decisive split was illustrated by the controversy over the ‘Hamburg points,’ which were aimed at reforming the armed forces. Ebert was against the points, whereas the SPD membership was for them (Haffner, 114).

On 24 December 1918 a battalion of the Freikorps moved into Berlin to put down the People’s Naval Division. Haffner portrays the victory of the People’s Naval Division (PND) as a great victory for the revolution (Haffner, 124). The battle, however, destroyed the effectiveness of the PND, which was a major part of the revolution’s paramilitary strength. Despite the fact that Ebert asked Groener to call off the troops, Ebert was still complicit in the suppression of the PND, as he had forged close links with Groener and the military establishment (Shepardson, 129).

The ‘Kapp putsch’ of 13 March 1920 showed Ebert’s aims clearly. While he did not want a Bolshevik takeover, he did not want a military dictatorship either. Ebert called a general strike and managed to defeat the coup. Therefore, Ebert’s real sympathy lay with parliamentary democracy, and he had to try and play the armed forces against the revolutionary workers, so that neither would prevail. As Haffner points out, the strike against the putsch was ‘democratic and anti-militaristic,’ rather than Bolshevist (Haffner, 188). As a result, the major reason that the revolution failed was because the revolutionaries, with their radical aims, put Ebert, with his moderate aims, at their head. Ebert, however, did not determine the strike by himself, he had backing – the workers wanted the putsch crushed. Haffner is very quick to lay all of the blame for the failure of the revolution upon Ebert. He states that ‘there is no doubt about who crushed the Revolution. It was the SPD leadership, it was Ebert and his men’ (Haffner, 195). The workers, however, must also share the blame for the revolution’s failure.

Haffner’s Failure of a Revolution falls somewhat short academically. References to the role that the 1918 revolution played in the rise of Hitler in the 1920s and 1930s are scattered throughout the book. Although these points are largely unsubstantiated and are not followed up with further analysis, which is indicative of a general lack of sources, they reflect the journalistic, rather than academic, approach that Haffner takes when writing the book. Haffner’s work relies very heavily on political and military memoirs, although no citations (and no bibliography is provided) are made, and because of this his insights are ‘too preoccupied with personalities’ (Wurgaft, 430). Therefore, the academic integrity of the book is diminished, but that does not mean that the book is flawed, merely that it is directed at a more non-academic audience. Despite its weaknesses, Failure of a Revolution should still be considered an important part of the historiography on the topic because of its readability and the thoroughness with which Haffner examines events.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/29/09)

Book Reviews

Bucholz, A., Review of Haffner, S., Failure of a Revolution: Germany 1918-1919, German Studies Review, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Oct., 1987) pp. 590-591. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1430928
Arden Bucholz praises the book in as much as it is a thorough examination of the events in Germany in 1918. He does, however, criticize the style of the book, which is journalistic, and the lack of scholarship, as shown in a lack of footnotes and a bibliography.

Wurgaft, L., Review of Haffner, S., Failure of a Revolution: Germany 1918-19, The American Historical Review, Vol. 80, No. 2 (1975), p. 430. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1850593
Lewis Wurcraft is very critical of not only the scholarly shortcomings, but also the lack of ‘depth and perspective’ that the book offers on the events. While the book is praised as very readable, it is not presented as being a worthwhile part of the historiography on the topic.

Web Sites

Professor Gerhard Rempel, “The German Revolution of 1918”, http://mars.wnec.edu/~grempel/courses/germany/lectures/18rev1918.html
Professor Rempel is a professor at Western New England College, Massachusetts. The information is presented in a lecture format, which concentrates on the events leading up to 9 November 1918. Although the lecture is basically a simple narrative of events, it is an excellent introduction to the topic. It provides a good, although brief, summary of events in Kiel, Berlin, and Munich and the impact that they had on the revolution.

Wikipedia, German Revolution of 1918-19”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_Revolution
The article examines events from all of the relevant angles. Although the section on the counter-revolution is extremely brief, the article provides a surprising amount of detail for a Wikipedia article. There is an attempt to give an overview of the historiography, which is moderately successful, but rather vague. The bibliography at the end is excellent, and includes many German language works on the topic.

Robert Bechert, “Socialism Today: Germany 1918-19”, http://www.socialismtoday.org/123/germany.html
This article offers a Leftist interpretation of the events in Germany in 1918. According to Bechert the revolution failed because the SPD wanted to support the war and the German establishment, in essence it wanted to keep what it already had; they wanted to protect capitalism. The article is only moderately successful in arguing its points. It is hindered by the ideological view that it is written from. Bechert makes only brief allusions to the role of the workers in the failure of the revolution, concentrating overwhelmingly on the role of the Ebert, the SPD, and their betrayal of the workers.

Additional Books

Ryder, A.J., The German Revolution of 1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967).
Ryder argues that the workers were not revolutionary enough in their aims and did not want the complete overthrow of the old state. As a consequence they were easily brushed aside by the old elites, supported by Ebert. More than half of the book is devoted the build up to the revolution and its myriad causes, something that other works lack. While the extensive examination of the background to the revolution is commendable, it detracts from the examination of the major issue, i.e. the actual revolution.

Smith, J., A People’s War (New York: University of America Press, 2007).
Smith tries to link the revolution of 1918 to more long-term factors, such as the growth of the SPD from the 1890s and the rift that he claims developed between the people and the Kaiser from 1913 onward. He does not place the blame on Ebert for the failure of the revolution. He tries to portray Ebert in 1918 as stuck between the workers and the old elites, and as a consequence rather helpless.

Coper, R., Failure of a Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955).
Coper places emphasis on the role of the workers for the failure of the revolution, but he also recognizes the role of Ebert and the SPD leadership. Although this book was written in 1955, and is outdated in much of research and interpretation, it is still fundamentally sound and well written.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/23/09; last updated: 3/31/09
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