Eyewitness to the German Revolution

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Illustration by Tim Robinson.

It was slightly more than a century ago, in November 1918, that revolution swept through Germany, bringing chaos to a country that, in the final days of World War I, was already in desperate straits and verging on collapse. Although it was obvious to nearly everyone that the war was lost, the fighting staggered on, even as a growing pacifist movement issued the cry for “Peace, Freedom, Bread!” In Kiel on the Baltic Sea, sailors at the docks refused the order for a last battle and went into open mutiny, while soldiers and revolutionary workers in Berlin called for a general strike. Kaiser Wilhelm II, an absurd and incompetent militarist, at last faced the truth that his time was up and abdicated the throne, leaving confusion in his wake. On November 9, Philipp Scheidemann, a member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP), seized the moment to declare the founding of a new republic.

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Because of the civil unrest in Berlin, the members of the fledgling government gathered to sign the new constitution in Weimar, a town some 300 kilometers to the southwest best known as the birthplace of German classicism. The Weimar Republic might have marked a peaceful transition—the founding of Germany’s first democracy. But the revolution was not finished. Just two hours after Germany had been declared a republic, Karl Liebknecht, leader of the anti-war Spartacus League, declared the founding of the Free Socialist Republic of Germany, a rival government that drew its strength from below and called for a shift in political power to the workers’ councils, following the model of the Russian soviets. The country lurched from monarchy to democracy not once, but twice.

For a short while, these two branches of the socialist movement—the majority Social Democrats and the pacifist independents—sustained a workable partnership. On November 10, the socialist paper Vorwärts carried the headline No War Between Brothers! The new government of the Weimar Republic, the Council of People’s Deputies, consisted of leaders from both groups, but it was chaired by Friedrich Ebert, a man who had started his career as a saddle-maker and had risen through the ranks of the socialist movement to become general secretary of the SDP’s reformist wing. Under Ebert’s leadership, the new government made some noteworthy reforms, such as an eight-hour workday, and introduced direct, universal suffrage for men and, for the first time, women as well. But over the next few months, the alliance between the two groups crumbled, and Ebert’s government, fearing revolution, ordered soldiers into the streets to confront the Spartacists and the crowds of demonstrators who continued to press for further reforms. In Berlin, Liebknecht and another Spartacist leader, Rosa Luxemburg, were murdered.

Germany now verged on civil war. The fight between the republic and the revolutionaries spread outward from the capital, west to the industrial and coal-mining region of the Ruhr Valley and south to Bavaria, where revolutionaries seized control of the local government and declared Bavaria a free state. In the Bavarian capital of Munich, the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council appointed the journalist and Social Democrat Kurt Eisner as minister president.

The revolutionary government in Bavaria lasted a mere 100 days. In February 1919, Eisner was assassinated by Anton Graf von Arco auf Valley, a right-wing anti-Semitic agitator from the Thule Society, the völkisch and mystical group that preceded the Nazis. In May of that year, leaders of the republic in Berlin dispatched the Freikorps, a bloodthirsty paramilitary force of decommissioned soldiers, to put down the left-wing socialists’ rebellion once and for all. In Munich, adherents of the Bavarian People’s Party cheered on the Freikorps as it went about its dirty work, murdering nearly 1,000 individuals, who were vilified in the right-wing press as the vanguard of a “Jewish-Bolshevist revolution.”

Observing all this chaos was the writer and academic Victor Klemperer. An assimilated German Jew and aspiring professor, Klemperer was a bookish man, a specialist in Romance literature and the author of a two-volume study on Montesquieu. Having received his doctorate on the eve of the war, he had served as an officer on the Western Front before taking up a professorship in 1919 at the University of Munich. Like many academics, Klemperer welcomed the republic and attached himself to the newly founded German Democratic Party (DDP), a group of liberal lawyers and other professionals who embraced democracy in principle but regarded the prospect of socialist revolution with a mixture of skepticism and anxiety. Klemperer also started to write reports on the Munich events for a newspaper in Leipzig under the ironic pseudonym “A.B.”—short for “Antibavaricus.”

Klemperer was indeed an anti-Bavarian: For him, Munich was the antipode to Prussian seriousness, the symbol of bohemia and a playground for artists and café intellectuals who conflated politics with theater, making a show of revolution. His dispatches were composed in the cool style of a man who couldn’t quite bring himself to believe in the brutal reality he was seeing. When the Freikorps intruded upon the spectacle, he perceived it as a tragicomedy. “Everything is wretched, and everything is bloody,” Klemperer wrote, “and you always want to laugh and cry at once.”

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A new book, Munich 1919: Diary of a Revolution, collects all of Klemperer’s reports on these events, and its editors have also included his later reflections from previously unpublished writings, composed in 1942, that look back on the era with the bitter advantages of hindsight. The effect is jarring, but also instructive: Klemperer reports on the revolution first as an eyewitness and later as a memoirist who already knows how things will unfold. Not unlike the novelist Thomas Mann, Klemperer would have characterized himself as an unpolitical German: He had no affection for social upheaval, and he shrugged off the early phase of the revolution as little more than “a political carnival.” But as time went by, he grew increasingly sober and, slowly, despite himself, came to the realization that great sections of the Munich bourgeoisie were not to be trusted.

Too much, perhaps, has been written in a celebratory key about the Weimar Republic, and too little about the disabling controversies that attended its birth. The November Revolution, after all, was not only the dawn of German democracy; it was also the crucible of counterrevolution. Klemperer himself never realized this as it was happening; his reports betray more blindness than insight. But they offer a sobering glimpse into an uncertain time when history might have tilted in a different direction. Through his writings, we can come to see how those first violent months of the Weimar Republic were only a prelude to the later catastrophe.

These days, Klemperer is celebrated as one of the greatest German-language diarists of the 20th century. He is best known for the two-volume collection of personal reflections that he wrote during his precarious years in Dresden from 1933 to 1945. The diaries were published long after his death, first in German and then in an English translation (unfortunately abridged) as I Will Bear Witness. In lapidary prose and a tone that oscillates between irony and alarm, he documents the creeping transformation of German society, the fears and petty compromises of average citizens who suffer even as they conform. Klemperer’s judgment is clear-sighted but rarely harsh: He sees that, under the conditions of a dictatorship, nobody can live without moral adjustment; everyone must struggle to get by.

Almost miraculously, Klemperer survived the Third Reich through a combination of unlikely circumstance and sheer luck. He had converted to Lutheranism in 1903 and volunteered as a reserve officer in the German Army. Decorated for his service in the First World War, he was allowed to continue teaching for a brief while even after the Nazis came to power. Though Klemperer was forced to wear a yellow star, his non-Jewish wife stood by his side all throughout the years that anti-Semitic legislation gradually inhibited the couple’s every move. First Klemperer was forbidden to own a typewriter; then his pension was canceled; finally, the pair were expelled from their home and forced to seek refuge in the so-called Jüdenhaus quarters alongside other Mischehen—the regime’s poisonous term for “mixed couples.”

In his diaries, Klemperer kept a close record of his life in Nazi Germany, documenting the daily brutality of its anti-Semitic legislation and its descent into the absurd (at one point, a ruling came down that Jews were forbidden to buy flowers). He also detailed the slow decay of his bourgeois existence in the bemused, if bitter, tones of a professor for whom the greatest indignity is the lack of a quiet spot where he can read in peace. He rarely boasts of personal distinction: “I come from middling circumstances,” Klemperer writes, “and have achieved middling things. I have passed my days as a professor…a rather average accomplishment.” But his deliberate prose would earn him a posthumous fame. When the diaries were first published in Germany in 1995, they met with enormous acclaim, with some 150,000 copies being sold in the first year. Literary readings were staged across the country, and in Munich both volumes were read out loud in an extended performance that lasted seven days.

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Nor can we neglect Klemperer’s other works. After the war, as a professor in East Germany, he published LTI, or Lingua Tertii Imperii, a book whose mock-academese Latin title translates as The Language of the Third Reich. A philologist at heart, Klemperer used linguistic criticism as a spiritual defense, slowly building a catalog of the barbarisms that the Nazis had inflicted on the German language. The book remains a crucial document for anyone who wishes to understand fascism as a cultural phenomenon. Following LTI, however, the muses seem to have abandoned him. A communist in name only, Klemperer grew resigned to his own duplicity during the last phase of his life. “I am an old liberal,” he wrote in 1957, “and my temporarily suppressed liberalism is showing ever more strongly through the layer of red makeup.” He died in 1960, at the age of 78.

Klemperer’s newspaper reports on the November Revolution are the work of a very different person. They lack the desperation of his later diaries, and they were clearly composed by a man who felt little fear for his personal safety despite the surrounding tumult. In one report, Klemperer writes of his wife, Eva, a conservatory-trained pianist plagued by illness, who was keen to continue her studies even in the midst of the storm. (“There she sat and played while gunfire rattled outside,” he noted, “and bullets caused plaster to rain down from the walls.”) Aloof from the violence and often insouciant in tone, Klemperer nonetheless offers us an acute report of the revolution, documenting the lines of political fracture that would weaken the German republic and ultimately bring it to an end.

On the left, the divisions were profound, signs of a serious disagreement over how the newly founded government was to be defined. Should it be one that presided over a pluralistic republic with a variety of parties, all devoted to the rules of the new Constitution and competing in a parliamentary framework? Or should it be a socialist government in the “council” sense, animated from below by workers’ groups and bent on a fundamental transformation of society?

The debate goes back to the very origins of the socialist movement in Germany. The Social Democrats were the heirs to two previous groups, the General German Workers’ Association and the Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, both founded in the 1860s. The two later fused into a single socialist organization that was forced underground during the era of anti-socialist laws. When the ban lapsed in 1890, the socialists resurfaced, and the newly christened Social Democratic Party of Germany emerged as the unified movement of the country’s left.

In the years leading up to the First World War, the Social Democrats made considerable gains. By 1912, the SPD had swelled in membership to become the largest party in the Reichstag. But with war looming on the horizon and the country consumed by a wave of truculent nationalism, the SPD found itself divided over the question of war. A majority faction backed a vote for war credits and declared a Burgfrieden, an archaic slogan denoting that a nation at war deserves the full devotion of all its citizens. A much smaller faction of the SPD, led by the stern-faced Liebknecht, condemned the military buildup as an imperialist venture and refused to authorize the credits. By 1916, Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, together with Clara Zetkin and other outspoken anti-militarists, had formed the Spartacus League, taking their name from a series of anti-war pamphlets they had distributed in defiance of the law. Toward the end of the First World War, a larger anti-war faction within the SPD also split off from the majority; along with the Spartacists, they founded the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD).

In retrospect, it would be hard to dispute the verdict that the USPD had justice on its side. The war, after all, was an unmitigated disaster: Germany alone suffered an estimated 1.8 million combat deaths; millions more returned from the front wounded or maimed. The total number of deaths for all of the combatant nations—Central Powers and Allies combined—reached nearly 10 million, and that figure doesn’t include civilian deaths or the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918, which claimed some 50 million to 100 million across the globe.

With Germany’s defeat came dissent and then open rebellion. When Scheidemann officially announced the founding of the new democratic government, the majority socialists and the independents already eyed one another with mutual suspicion. And when the Spartacists joined the demonstrations in the capital pressing for further reforms, Ebert made his catastrophic mistake: He ordered the military to fire on the crowds, a scandalous action that Liebknecht condemned as “Ebert’s bloody Christmas.”

The majority socialists, however, were just getting started. Under duress, the minister for military affairs called on the Freikorps to defend the new government in Berlin, leading to clashes across Germany between the revolutionaries and the right-wing paramilitary organization. In the midst of this violence, however, the majority socialists and the independents in Bavaria still found a way to come together to found the Free State of Bavaria, with USPD leader Kurt Eisner as minister president.

Klemperer was living in Munich during these early months of the revolution, and what he has to say about Eisner is hardly flattering: The Munich revolutionary was, he tells us, “a mediocre, spent man.” But he is no more sparing of Eisner’s killer, whom he condemns as an “overheated patriot.” The assassination seems to have stirred Klemperer from his apolitical slumber. On February 22, 1919, he filed this bitter dispatch with the Leipzig newspaper:

[E]ven in these past months, there has been no more of an infuriatingly senseless act than Eisner’s murder. No one doubted Eisner’s entirely pure intentions. He wanted nothing for himself; although the abruptness of his ascent had naturally filled him with self-assurance, he had none of the excruciating vanity of Karl Liebknecht or the bloody fanaticism of Rosa Luxemburg. He wanted to keep his hands clean of money, and of blood.

If Klemperer had once viewed Eisner with disdain, he now saw him as a kind of tragic hero, an idealist caught in a cynical age. Eisner “floated,” Klemperer writes,

since the solid ground had long been pulled out from under him, and since he did not know what to do with solid ground anyway, and this is why the dead Eisner now has infinitely more followers than the living one ever did.

Eisner’s murder marked a turning point, not only for Bavaria but for German democracy itself, bringing the struggle between socialism and reaction into its most violent phase. For Klemperer, the change was unnerving. One can sense a shift in tone as he slowly began to awake to a greater political realism. While many of his colleagues and students, who had once been indifferent to politics, now spoke openly of Eisner’s assassin as a hero, Klemperer continued to find both sides repellent: “I could not warm to this bourgeoisie,” he writes, “any more than I could to the Spartacists.” But he recognized that the clash in Bavaria between the revolutionaries and the counterrevolutionary bourgeoisie had degenerated into something far more repugnant, a foretaste of things to come:

And once the bourgeoisie began to realize that the council republican game they had watched half-apathetically, half-sullenly to that point could actually mean something worse for them than just a wild, carnivalistic performance, how did they demonstrate their awakening to resistance? Through spontaneous anti-Semitism. “Jewish pigs!” ranted individuals in front of the posters on the walls, “Jewish pigs!” roared the occasional small chorus, and flyers appeared blaming the Jews entirely for the Council Republic, for the revolution itself, for inciting the war, for its disastrous outcome.

By early spring, a new and more committed revolutionary government had taken over in Munich, led by leftist intellectuals like the playwright Ernst Toller and the anarchist theoretician Gustav Landauer, a bearded utopian whom Klemperer portrays as “more benevolent than fanatic.” Landauer’s official title was exotic, a sign of his utopian spirit: Commissioner for Enlightenment and Public Instruction. But the new political experiment lasted only a week; it was soon displaced by a second council republic led by an even more radical faction. At this point, the government in Berlin decided that it had seen enough, and it dispatched the Freikorps—about 30,000 troops in all—to put down the Bavarian insurgency.

As they converged on Munich, the paramilitary soldiers had already been stirred into a nationalist frenzy. Propaganda portrayed the council government and its supporters as “murderous Bolshevist beasts.” Klemperer records the invasion in detail. The contingent of Freikorps volunteers from Bavaria entered the city wearing “rustic, knee-length leather mountain garb” and “felt Alpine hats and knapsacks.” They had “sprays of flowers on their chests, hats, and in the barrels of their guns.” A larger contingent, under the leadership of Franz Ritter von Epp, were bedecked with a “golden lion’s head in the black diamond on their upper arms, and the white stripes or bands around their caps and steel helmets.”

On the first Friday in May, Klemperer reports on one of the worst battles, when the fighting changed “from a skirmish to a slaughter, and the blast of mines and grenades shudders the earth almost non-stop and drowns out the wild rattle of machine-gun fire and the crack of gunshots.” The Freikorps was ruthless: “A great deal of blood is flowing in the inner city,” Klemperer writes, “where the Spartacists are desperately holding their ground, as they likely have nothing to gain from surrender anymore.” In those early days of May, the council government saw somewhere between 500 and 1,000 killed in battle. Landauer was arrested and transferred to prison, where he was bludgeoned to death while still in custody. The spectacle strikes Klemperer as both awful and inevitable: “It is the old, grim necessity of nature,” he observes, “unimpeded by a feeble government—and feeble is the mildest of epithets—the Spartacists were allowed to sow death, and now they have reaped it a hundred times over.”

Reading those words now, one can only shake one’s head in disbelief. How could Klemperer lay the greatest blame for the bloodshed on the Spartacist opposition, even as he saw the violence that Epp and his forces had unleashed? Although Klemperer never completely abandons his detached tone, his final reports sound increasingly apprehensive. When the death sentence of Eisner’s assassin is commuted to life in prison, the news sends the Bavarian public into fits of celebration, and there is “greater rejoicing than has ever greeted a German victory.” Klemperer’s own students are ecstatic, a fact that he notes with growing disquiet. “They don’t realize what it is they’re celebrating,” he writes, “troops who dictate to the government how it should behave.” In his naïveté, however, he still failed to see that the ascendant militants among the younger generation understood perfectly well what they were cheering for: a nationalist counterrevolution. A decade later, those dreams would be fulfilled.

Assigning blame in history is too often a polemicist’s game, a facile way of settling present scores by turning past actors into good and bad characters according to whatever ideology we now happen to prefer. But in the case of the German Revolution of 1918–19, it seems altogether obvious that the blame cannot be distributed equally. Among Germany’s socialists, considerable blame must fall on the majority Social Democrats, who sealed a pact with the devil when they placed patriotism above peace and planted the seeds of division that would prove fatal to the socialist cause. To be sure, following Lenin’s seizure of power in Russia, fears of Bolshevik revolution in Central Europe were hardly unfounded. But the conduct of the majority socialists in Germany did nothing to deter this possibility. Their compromise with the forces of reaction only enhanced the prospect of civil war, opening a breach in the socialist movement that turned the radical flank from potential allies into an embittered and increasingly hardened opposition that could see little difference between bourgeois moderates and the radical right. Memories of the socialists’ betrayal refused to die: By the end of the 1920s, as Stalinism tightened its grip, communists across Europe were accusing the Social Democrats of “social fascism.”

Meanwhile, the right only grew more radical and fed itself on fears of a Bolshevik conspiracy. In the early 1920s, the Weimar Republic faced a series of assaults that tested its strength, beginning in 1920 with the so-called Kapp Putsch, an attempted coup d’état by the military and reactionary nationalists in Berlin, and the better-known Beer Hall Putsch by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis three years later in Munich. In the short term, both ended in failure, but in retrospect these blows from the right look like trial runs for 1933. After the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler was briefly sent to prison, along with Rudolf Hess and the rest of his fellow conspirators. But the trial only gave Hitler a platform to broadcast his views; when he was released just nine months later, he was a more cunning tactician—someone who knew that the republic was best overthrown not all at once, but slowly and by legal means.

Nor did the German economy show much resilience. The catastrophic devaluation of the mark in 1923 weakened the Weimar government almost from the start, leaving businesses in ruin and as much as a quarter of the population unemployed. It was really only in 1924 that the republic gained its equilibrium. Historians like to say that the Weimar Republic had a chance, that Nazism’s victory was hardly foreordained. But it is chastening to remember that the coalition system of centrist parties lasted just five years; the financial crash of 1929 was merely the final blow to a system already strained by party factionalism and economic disarray. After the crash, the moderate parties began to hemorrhage in earnest, sending citizens to both ends of the political spectrum. By July 1932, the Nazi Party was the largest in the Reichstag.

If there is a cautionary lesson in this grim tale, it is that the left can survive the fascist tide only if it sustains a united front. Especially in times of war, nationalism can be the fatal wedge, dividing moderates from militants and blinding both to the greater threat. Klemperer, for his part, continued to “float” in the political ether. His longing for order inhibited him from seeing where his true sympathies lay, and he remained an incorrigible moderate in an immoderate age. When the troops marched into Munich in the spring of 1919, Klemperer consoled himself with the thought that the reactionaries could be tamed and that the center would hold. Even during the pitched battle between the council government and Epp’s forces, he managed to convince himself that the Freikorps represented the “lesser evil.” By 1942, however, Klemperer recalled this earlier verdict with some discomfort. Though he still couldn’t bring himself to side with the Spartacists, he now saw that the right would be guilty of far greater atrocities. He was correct: Epp would later emerge as a prominent official in the Third Reich.

Klemperer’s diaries from the Nazi era are masterful; his reports on the November Revolution are less so. Though fascinating in their detail, they are remarkably shortsighted in matters of political judgment. One day in late 1919, when Klemperer was strolling down a sidewalk in Munich, a soldier leveled his rifle and called on him to halt. “Oh, it’s you,” Klemperer said, upon looking at the soldier more carefully. The little man beneath the helmet was a professor of Catholic philosophy from the university, a “peaceable” and “pleasant colleague” who belonged to the left wing of the Weimar coalition. Klemperer showed him how to engage the safety on his gun: “There could be an accident otherwise,” he warned, “if you swing that rifle around so boldly.” “I know,” the man replied. “I shot the ceiling earlier.”

The two chatted for a few minutes more. “Say, who are we actually serving with Epp?” the professor turned soldier asked. “Is it really the republic and peace?” “It’s the lesser evil, in any case,” Klemperer observed. Years later, he added a comment: “I was pleased with my answer, but I was not very much at ease.” By then, however, it was far too late.