How did the 1918 German revolution affect the country’s prospects of a strong democracy?
It is unlikely that the German revolution provided any real basis for democracy. The First World War had left Germany in a terrible state with huge reparation costs being demanded of them. This left the pride of the German people in a poor state, and the country’s international reputation was very low. Whatever state Germany was in, it was forced into that position by the war; America would only deal with Germany if it was democratic, which resulted in Ludendorff and Hindenberg (who were the leading German generals at the time) triggering a revolution against the Kaiserreich in order to impose a civilian government. A key motivating factor in this was to shift the blame for losing the war away from themselves. However, when Prince Max eventually became the head of government, it was clearly not much of a change from an autocratic society. This set the stage for a second revolution. This situation resulted in a level of bitterness that meant the Germans would not easily be satisfied with the democracy that was imposed upon them.
The revolution left the Germans with a government that claimed to rule with the support of the civilian people. This was not, however, the case: the very fact that it was controlled by a prince demonstrated that the ‘Civilian’ government was detached from the interests and motivations of the commoner. Additionally, the previous system was not completely dismantled; a prince had replaced an autocrat. Since the people were yet to break away from the old system, it seems unlikely to assume that any truly new government would form without a vast amount of work. Undoubtedly there would have been great consequences if anything had gone wrong. If someone did not work out, the populace or some other faction might turn to another revolution as the first response, and replace the fledgling democracy with another half-implemented system.
Citizens had seemingly overthrown all forms of government that Germany had seen thus far. This made for an unstable state. If the soldiers were not happy with the next form of government, there was nothing to stop another rebellion much like that of the Kiel sailors. The common populace or aristocratic circles were equally likely to attempt to overthrow the government, and it seems that there were simply too many diverse groups of people with their own specialist interests for any political system to satisfy them all. Perhaps this is the reason that democracy had no chance of success.
In truth, the system was undermined by the myth of the ‘stab in the back’. Ludendorff had stated, when asked about the loss of the First World War, that high command had never listened to the military and that they were ‘stabbed in the back’ by the existing government. True or not, it was certainly believed at the time. It was an ideal answer to those who asked why Germany had come so close to victory (or so they thought) and yet surrendered. The myth put all blame on the civilian government, saving face on the part of Germany’s war heroes (i.e. Hindenberg and Ludendorff), and allowing the nation to retain some national pride. As one ‘democracy’ had already failed the state in such a grand way, the ‘stab in the back’ myth enabled any group to sway the opinions of those already prejudiced against democracy. Hitler and the Nazi party later did exactly that.
The collective pride of the German people turned them against their government. If this could happen so easily, what chance did democracy have of succeeding?
If you are interested in pursuing this interesting subject further, some useful free online resources can be found via the following links:
Rempel, G. The German Revolution of 1918. Available at: http://www.johndclare.net/Rempel_Weimar18.htm (Accessed: 29 May 2016).
Russell, M. (2012) The German Revolution, 1918-1919. Available at: http://www.historyinanhour.com/2012/06/21/german-revolution-summary (Accessed: 29 May 2016).
The German Bundestag (2006) The November revolution, 1918/1919. Available at: https://www.bundestag.de/blob/189772/8b9e17bd8d64e64c8e3a95fc2305e132/november_revolution-data.pdf (Accessed: 29 May 2016).
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