Germany in turmoil

Instability, mutiny, violence and abdication

The November Revolution (also called the German Revolution) refers to the series of events that took place in Germany at the end of World War I and the beginning of the Weimar Republic.

These events included the collapse of the German monarchy, the end of the Kaiserreich (Imperial Germany), and the formation of a democratic, parliamentary government.

The revolution began in November 1918, when the German Empire was on the verge of defeat in World War I.

In the face of defeat, the German military and political leadership sought to negotiate a peace settlement with the Allied powers.

Protection troops of the Soldiers' Council in front of the Cafe Astoria, Unter den Linden, soon after the Proclamation of the new German Republic, 9-10 November 1918.

Imperial War Museum

...believed that they had been humiliated...

However, the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed in 1919, were extremely harsh and punitive, and many Germans believed that they had been humiliated and punished unfairly. As a result of these developments, there were widespread protests and demonstrations in Germany, and the government was forced to resign.

Uprising and unrest

The German Army and Naval Command started the revolution's initial movements.  In the face of defeat, the Naval Command insisted on trying to use its naval order of 24th October 1918 to provoke a final pitched conflict with the British Royal Navy, but the battle never happened.

German sailors led a rebellion in the naval ports of Wilhelmshaven on 29th October 29, which was followed by the Kiel mutiny in the first few days of November, instead of following their instructions to start making preparations to fight the British.

A German soldier and his son on a horse decorated with a garland meeting at last during a parade of returning troops in Berlin, December 1918.

THE GERMAN REVOLUTION, 1918-1919 | Imperial War Museums (

As a result of these upheavals, civic unrest spread throughout Germany, and on 9th November 1918—two days before Armistice Day—a republic was proclaimed in the place of the imperial monarchy.

Abdication of Wilhelm II

Kaiser Wilhelm II was the Emperor (Kaiser) of Germany and King of Prussia and had ruled since 1888 but now decided to abdicate and relinquish his throne.

On November 9, 1918, he issued a statement in which he announced his intentions and the following day, he formally renounced his throne and all of his rights and privileges as Emperor and King of Prussia. Wilhelm II went into exile in the Netherlands, where he lived out the remainder of his life. He died in 1941 at the age of 82.

With the government having been forced to resign and the emperor now having stepped down, a provisional government was established under the leadership of Friedrich Ebert, a Social Democrat. Ebert played a crucial role in the formation of the Weimar Republic. He was eventually elected as the first President of Germany by the National Assembly in 1919.

The last German Emperor and King of Prussia, Kaiser Wilhelm II.

The political factions

The November revolution was led by a coalition of socialist and liberal politicians, who formed a new government and declared the abdication of the Kaiser (the German monarch). The new government, known as the Weimar Republic, was based on democratic principles and adopted a constitution that granted universal suffrage and established a parliamentary democracy.

Friedrich Ebert, leader of the SPD has previously excluded opponents of the war from his party – which caused a split.

  • The Spartacists joined with so-called revisionists like Eduard Bernstein and centrists like Karl Kautsky to found the fully anti-war Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) under the leadership of Hugo Haase.
  • Friedrich Ebert remained the head of the SPD, which was now known as the Majority Social Democratic Party of Germany (MSPD).
  • The Marxist revolutionary movement Spartacist League, which had previously opposed a party split, now made up the USPD's left wing.

...they advocated for democracy, peace, and an end to militarism...

Both the USPD and the Spartacists had persisted in spreading anti-war sentiment among workplaces, particularly in armament manufacturing, putting them at odds with Ebert and his MSPD.

The majority of the members of the USPD and MSPD made composed the Workers' and Soldiers' Councils. They advocated for democracy, peace, and an end to militarism. Only the military commands lost their privilege and power, excluding the dynastic dynasties. 

The responsibilities of the imperial civil administration and its representatives, including the police, municipal governments, and courts, were not restricted or tampered with.

An anti-Spartacist demonstration by the Majority Socialists in front of the Chancellery building in Berlin.

THE GERMAN REVOLUTION, 1918-1919 | Imperial War Museums (

The USPD promoted the swift realisation of Socialist principles in a system of soviet-style councils, whereas the MSPD called for the immediate convening of a constituent national assembly.

The MSPD desired the democratically elected National Assembly to make decisions on important constitutional law matters, such as the structure of the economy.

The MSPD decided to work with the former Empire power brokers due to the multiple difficulties brought on by the lost war, including the return of several million soldiers and the provision of food supplies, as well as a desire to avoid bringing the nation to the verge of civil war. 

The MSPD leadership opposed the establishment of Soviet-style councils, the revolutionaries, who were motivated by liberalism and socialist ideals, did not cede control to them as the Bolsheviks had done in Russia.

1st December 1918, Berlin, Germany. Sparticists carry the red flag through the streets of Berlin in their call for a revolution and the establishment of a socialist republic.

How to stop a war: The German servicemen’s revolt of 1918 - Bristol Radical History Group (

...they feared an all-out civil war in Germany...

Instead, the MSPD favoured a national assembly that would serve as the cornerstone of a parliamentary form of government. The MSPD did not intend to entirely deprive the old German upper classes of their power and privileges because they feared an all-out civil war in Germany between militant workers and reactionary conservatives.

However, among the military commanders, the police, the judiciary, and the administrative and civil service, there was no strong sense of commitment to parliamentary democracy and the republic. The nascent Weimar Republic would bear a tremendous cost as a result of this lack of republican spirit.

Timeline of events

  • 3rd November 1918: The Kiel Mutiny served as the impetus for the revolution that expanded across the Empire in a matter of days, with little to no opposition from the previous order. As the working classes joined forces with the military, it grew into a massive movement opposed to the monarchical regime. Workers' and Soldiers' Councils were established throughout the Empire and were given political and armed authority. The Majority Social Democratic Party of Germany (MSPD) and the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), two Social Democratic parties that had been divided since 1917, took the initiative to lead the revolution, and together with the Councils, they emerged as the major political figures in the November Revolution. The majority of the Councils had ties to the MSPD politically.

A demonstration in Berlin against a dictated Peace Treaty. The procession moving through the Brandenburg Gate and on to the Paris Platz.

THE GERMAN REVOLUTION, 1918-1919 | Imperial War Museums (

...a few hours later, the "Free Socialist Republic" was proclaimed...

  • 9th November 1918: Prince Max of Baden (1867-1929), the Imperial Chancellor, proclaimed the Emperor's abdication. Friedrich Ebert (1871–1925), head of the MSPD, was appointed Chancellor of the Reich by Prince Max. Philipp Scheidemann of the MSPD who announced the republic from a window of the Reichstag building, did so on the same day. 
  • A few hours later, the "Free Socialist Republic" was proclaimed by Karl Liebknecht of the USPD. This republic's dual proclamation captured the struggle that drove the uprising.
  • 9th November 1918: A national "Council of People's Representatives" was established, and the following day, the General Assembly of the Berlin Workers' and Soldiers' Councils confirmed it as the interim administration. Three representatives from the MSPD and three from the USPD made up the six-member Council. Hugo Haase and Friedrich Ebert (MSPD) served as its co-chairmen. Ebert played a significant part in the revolution in his twin capacities as co-chairman of the Council of People's Representatives and Chancellor of the Reich.

"Berlin seized by revolutionists": The New York Times on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918.

Public Domain

...engaged in brutal combat with members of the USPD and the Communist KPD...

  • 10th November 1918:  Ebert wins the backing of the military staff through a deal with General Wilhelm Groener, commander of the German High Command.
  • 12th November 1918: The Council of People's Representatives pass legislation allowing women to vote.  
  • 30th November 1918: The Council of People's Representatives decide that the elections for the German National Assembly would take place on January 19, 1919.
  • 28th December 1918: The USPD resigned from the Council of People's Representatives, causing the alliance between the MSPD and the temporary government to disintegrate due to disagreements over a military expedition. 
  • 5 - 12th January 1919: The Spartacist Uprising, which saw forces of the MSPD administration engaged in brutal combat with members of the USPD and the Communist KPD with the aid of the right-wing Freikorps, was the result of the debate over the revolution's future trajectory. 

Machine-gun position on the quadriga of the Brandenburger Tor, Berlin, during the Spartacist uprising.

Public domain

...the route of the revolution towards parliamentary democracy was dramatically changed...

  • 15th-16th January: Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, two leaders of the KPD, are killed by members of the Freikorps.
  • 19th January 1919: Despite further hard battles with the radical Left in the months that followed, including local uprisings and wildcat strikes, the route of the revolution towards parliamentary democracy was dramatically changed by the elections to the National Assembly. In the elections, the MSPD came out on top.
  • 6th February 1919: The Weimar National Assembly establishes itself.
  • 11th February 1919: Friedrich Ebert elected as Reich President.
  • 12th February 1919: The Weimar Coalition of the German Democratic Party (DDP), the Center Party, and the Majority SPD (MSPD), led by Philipp Scheidemann (MSPD), became the first administration of the Reich to answer to Parliament.
  • Summer 1919: The vast majority of the Workers' and Soldiers' Councils have disbanded.
  • 11th August 1919: The revolution is formally put to an end with the adoption of the Weimar Constitution.

KPD leaders Karl Liebknecht (L) and Rosa Luxemburg (R) were murdered by the Friekorps during the revolution.

Public domain


The German Revolution was a tumultuous time, marked by political instability, economic turmoil, and social unrest.

The new social democratic system was instead intended to be peacefully incorporated into them. MSPD leftists wanted an alliance with the German Supreme Command in this endeavour.

Due to their increased autonomy, the army and the Freikorps (nationalist militias) were able to violently put down the communist Spartacist Uprising of 4–15 January 1919.

The same coalition of political forces was successful in quelling leftist uprisings in other regions of Germany, leading to the complete pacification of the nation by late 1919.

Germans stand guard with an armored car in front of the Chancellor’s Palace in Berlin during the German Revolution 13 May, 1919.

Color by Richard White

Despite these challenges and upheavals, the Weimar Republic was able to establish a functioning democracy and make important contributions to the development of modern Germany.

However, the legacy of the German Revolution and the Treaty of Versailles would ultimately contribute to the rise of the Nazi Party

Further reading