The German Revolution of 1918–19: Expectations, Experiences, Responses

The German Revolution of 1918–19 brought an abrupt end to more than a thousand years of monarchical history in Central Europe. The revolution led to a state-of-the-art liberal democracy and the first ever socialist government of an advanced industrial economy. But it is seldom regarded as belonging in the same company of epoch-defining revolutions as those in France (1789), Mexico (1910), Russia (1917), China (1949), or Iran (1979). On the contrary, Germany’s first successful democratic revolution so disappointed generations of historians that they competed to award it negative epithets such as ‘stalled’, ‘aborted’, or ‘betrayed’.1 The eventful history and disastrous end of the Weimar Republic still cast a long shadow over the revolution that brought it to life. The 1918–19 revolution is examined in a diagnostic mode, with historians searching for ominous pathologies in a newborn democratic patient. This preoccupation with 1918–19 as a possible prefiguration of the Nazi seizure of power in 1933–4 has inescapably come at the cost of attention to the German Revolution as a lived event. Our edited volume Living the German Revolution 1918–19: Expectations, Experiences, Responses, published with Oxford University Press in the series ‘Studies of the German Historical Institute London’, redresses this by focusing on the synchronicity of the revolution and its contemporary construal by a diverse cast of social groups.

In the first weeks of November 1918, hardly any newspaper or commentator, regardless of political leaning, doubted that a genuine and historic revolution was taking place. Germans were conscious of being participants, for better or worse, in an audacious civic experiment. ‘Overnight’, the theologian Ernst Troeltsch told Berlin students, ‘we have become the most radical democracy in Europe’.2 Friedrich Ebert, the normally unexcitable future Reich President, invoked the Enlightenment philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte in declaring the revolution’s goal to be nothing less than ‘justice and honesty, founded on the equality of everything that bears a human face’.3

To Ben Hecht, the well-connected Germany correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, every day ‘was like a presidential pre-election eve at home . . . All was politics, revolution, antirevolution’.4 Our volume seeks to recover these excitements—and also forebodings—about the German Revolution from what the historian E. P. Thompson, writing about the British labour movement, memorably dubbed ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’.5

The revolution’s centenary in 2018 already encouraged public reappreciation in Germany of the significance of 1918–19. Museum exhibitions, lecture series, conferences, and special features in highbrow newspapers were devoted to a previously uncelebrated revolution that was now recast in popular histories as ‘the true beginning of our democracy’.6 As always with public history, the resonance of these initiatives reflected present as much as historical concerns. The ninetieth anniversary of the revolution had passed by almost unnoticed. One of the few publications it inspired was entitled ‘The Forgotten Revolution of 1918/19’. Its editor, Alexander Gallus, attributed this forgottenness to the apparent stability of contemporary German democracy, which diminished the valence of the Weimar Republic as a negative foil in public life.7 By 2018, German liberal democracy looked much more precarious. The new political party Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland: AfD) had been formed in 2013 in protest against monetary and fiscal consolidation of the Eurozone. With the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015/16, the party embraced a nativist populism uncomfortably redolent of hard-right political discourse in the Weimar Republic. The AfD became the third largest party in the German Bundestag in the 2017 federal elections, a meteoric ascent that likewise brought to mind the final years of Weimar. These developments offered a stark reminder that liberal democracy is always a provisional accomplishment and conferred renewed salience on its achievement in Germany in 1918–19. The conspicuous success of the AfD in former territories of the German Democratic Republic also raised questions about the revolution of 1989 and its legacy. AfD politicians in the eastern states of Saxony, Thuringia, and Brandenburg stirred and exploited popular disenchantment with its social and economic aftermath, presenting 1989 in the ready-made register of yet another German revolution stalled, aborted, or betrayed.8

Cover of Living the German Revolution 1918–19: Expectations, Experiences, Responses
Cover of Living the German Revolution 1918–19: Expectations, Experiences, Responses, ed. by Christopher Dillon and Kim Wünschmann, ‘Studies of the German Historical Institute London’ (Oxford, 2023)

The expectations, experiences, and responses of Germans towards revolution are therefore of more than antiquarian interest. Our volume looks beyond the revolutionary ministers, Spartacist intellectuals, and army officers who populate the classic historiography of the revolution, which dates mainly from the 1960s and 1970s. Our cast of characters encompasses sailors mobilizing politically in north German naval bases, women storming town halls in provincial Bavaria, youngsters pounding Hamburg dance floors on wintry evenings, factory workers savouring the new eight-hour day, publishers grappling with shifting readerships, theologians debating constitutional arrangements, and journalists competing to make sense of a world seemingly turned upside down. The contributions recover these people’s horizons of expectation (Reinhart Koselleck) and diverse subjective investments in the revolution. They explore the varieties of revolutionary experience in well-known hotbeds of the revolution such as Berlin and Munich, but also in rural and provincial Germany. They analyse the role of churches and other mediating institutions in popular responses to the revolution. They seek to historicize the revolution not so much from above, or from below, as ‘from within’, as a lived and open-ended civic experiment.9 A characteristic feature of the German Revolution of 1918–19 was its rapid disavowal even by ideologically sympathetic actors in the Weimar Republic. The German Social Democratic Party, its motor force and beneficiary at the level of regime change, struggled to articulate a celebration of the revolution that disentangled it from the ‘myth of the stab in the back’ (Dolchstoßlegende) and from the hated Versailles Treaty. Only by exploring the contemporary archival record, on which all the contributions to the volume rest, can historians excavate the revolution’s popular mobilization and societal penetration, its destruction of inherited patterns of authority, and its complex and contested legacy for the Weimar republican project.


The featured image shows part of the cover of Living the German Revolution 1918–19: Expectations, Experiences, Responses, government soldiers in revolutionary Berlin, 23 January 1919. Source: bpk / Kunstbibliothek, SMB, Photothek Willy Römer / Willy Römer



Cite this blog post
Christopher Dillon & Kim Wünschmann (2023, November 23). The German Revolution of 1918–19: Expectations, Experiences, Responses. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved March 2, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/p1rg

  1. Eberhard Kolb, ‘1918/19: Die steckengebliebene Revolution’, in Carola Stern und Heinrich August Winkler (eds.), Wendepunkte deutscher Geschichte 1848–1945 (Frankfurt am Main, 1979), 87–109; Gordon A. Craig, Germany 1866–1945 (Oxford, 1979), 397–433; Sebastian Haffner, Die verratene Revolution: Deutschland 1918/19 (Frankfurt am Main, 1969). []
  2. Robert E. Norton, The Crucible of German Democracy: Ernst Troeltsch and the First World War (Tübingen, 2021), 5. []
  3. Verhandlungen der verfassunggebenden deutschen Nationalversammlung, vol. 326, I. Sitzung, 6 Feb. 1919, 3. []
  4. Ben Hecht, A Child of the Century (New York, 1985; 1st pub. 1954), 282. []
  5. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York, 1963), 12. []
  6. Wolfgang Niess, Die Revolution von 1918/19: Der wahre Beginn unserer Demokratie (Berlin, 2017). []
  7. Alexander Gallus (ed.), Die vergessene Revolution von 1918/19 (Göttingen, 2010). []
  8. Manès Weisskircher, ‘The Strength of Far‐Right AfD in Eastern Germany: The East–West Divide and the Multiple Causes behind “populism”‘, The Political Quarterly, 91/3 (2020), 614–22. []
  9. We borrow this term from Mary Fulbrook, Dissonant Lives: Generations and Violence through the German Dictatorships (Oxford, 2011), 2. []

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Christopher Dillon & Kim Wünschmann

Christopher Dillon is Senior Lecturer in Modern German History at King’s College London. His research focuses on Bavaria during the Weimar and Nazi periods, with particular interest in the history of political culture, gender, and violence. He studied for his Ph.D. at Birkbeck, University of London, as part of an AHRC-funded project on the pre-war National Socialist concentration camps. His publications include the monograph Dachau and the SS: A Schooling in Violence (Oxford University Press, 2015). Christopher is currently writing a socio-cultural history of the 1918–19 revolution in Bavaria. Kim Wünschmann is Director of the Institute for the History of the German Jews in Hamburg. She obtained her Ph.D. from Birkbeck, University of London and subsequently held positions at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Centre for German–Jewish Studies at the University of Sussex, and LMU Munich. Her research centres on Holocaust studies, European Jewish history, legal history, and comic studies. Publications include: Before Auschwitz: Jewish Prisoners in the Prewar Concentration Camps (Harvard University Press, 2015), awarded the Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research; and the forthcoming Oberbrechen: A German Village Confronts its Nazi Past. A Graphic History (Oxford University Press), co-written with Stefanie Fischer.

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