Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Robert Gerwarth's November 1918

"In the early morning hours of 10 November 1918, a small convoy of cars crossed the Belgian-Dutch border near the village of Eijsden, carrying the last German Kaiser and King of Prussia, Wilhelm II, into exile. The previous day, his head of government, Chancellor Max von Baden, had publicly announced, without the Kaiser's authorization, that Wilhelm had abdicated."

And thus ended the German Reich, a revolution of sorts that led to the founding of the new German Republic, centred in Weimar. Robert Gerwarth's book is about that revolution. 

The revolution that led to the Weimar Republic is usually viewed as a failure, but Gerwarth wants to change that, at least a bit. "...commonly referred to in the existing historical literature, political speeches, and journalistic op-ed pieces as a 'failed' or 'half-hearted' revolution, the events of late 1918 have long been viewed as part of Germany's 'special path' towards the abyss of the Third Reich...This book suggests an alternative interpretation of the November Revolution--one that does more justice to the achievements of the events of 1918-19, which constituted both the first and the last revolution in a highly industrialized country worldwide prior to the peaceful revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe in 1989-1990." 

Gerwarth notes that the new German republic was the first large industrial country to give women the right to vote, that three quarters of the electorate voted for parties committed to democracy, and that the initial government was a coalition of centre-left parties. That while homosexuality was still illegal, the atmosphere was considerably liberalized. 

The book covers the years from 1917 to 1923. Gerwarth starts with the revolution in Russia, which was both example and warning. But it also considerably changed the battlefield situation. Lenin took Russia out of the war; the generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff decided to gamble on complete victory--and lost their gamble. Germany went from its strongest position militarily to its weakest quite quickly in early 1918. Hindenburg and Ludendorff had been running the country as well as the army, but after the collapse of their attack in France, Kaiser Wilhelm appointed the liberal aristocrat Max von Baden as Chancellor in an attempt to salvage things.

The war was clearly lost, and the left hoped to negotiate with the allies, particularly with Wilson, on the basis of the Fourteen Points. Gerwarth suggests there was considerable optimism in Germany in the first half of 1919 until it became clear that the Treaty of Versailles would be punitive.  Friedrich Ebert, a moderate socialist, became Chancellor, succeeding von Baden, via some extra-constitutional juggling in November of 1918, but when elections were held in 1919, he was legitimately elected to the office.

There were challenges over the next few years, violence instigated by both the Communist left and by the nationalist right. Gerwarth thinks it was managed adequately, though the use of the Freikorps soldiers of the right to put down the Communists, though maybe necessary, was also problematic in the long run. The book ends with Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, which was successfully quashed.

This book came out in 2020. I wanted to read it because I enjoyed his book of 2016 The Vanquished about the years after World War I. While I found this book pretty interesting, I don't think it was quite as fascinating as his earlier one.