A History of the German Republic, Arthur Rosenberg 1936

Chapter II: The Government of the People’s Representatives [1]

In the months of November and December 1918 and January 1919, Germany was governed dictatorially by the Council of People’s Representatives. Up to the end of December 1918, the council was composed of three representatives of the SPD and three representatives of the USPD. After the withdrawal of the USPD representatives the Majority Socialists ruled alone. The Greater Berlin Executive Committee at first controlled the government in the name of the revolutionary councils. But in December the General Congress of German Councils elected a Central Council entrusted with the duty of watching over the government’s activities. In so far as their actions were covered by the Executive Council, and subsequently the Central Council, the government possessed dictatorial authority and its decrees had the force of law throughout Germany.

In these three months the government displayed extraordinary activity and issued a large number of important decrees. At the same time its really important and basic activities were confined to special spheres. As early as 12 November, the government announced the introduction of an eight-hour day. A further decree, published by the demobilisation authorities on 23 November, was also concerned with the hours of labour. The government repealed the former regulations governing domestic work, and the unjust special regulations concerning the employment of agricultural labourers. The civil service was granted the unrestricted right of association. An important decree, issued on 13 November, regulated unemployment relief by laying upon the municipalities the duty of maintaining the unemployed. Nevertheless the legal position accorded to Poor Law relief was not granted to unemployment relief. The cost of unemployment relief was in general to be borne as to one-half by the Reich and one-third by the individual state; the remaining one-sixth had to be found by the local municipality. In addition to these decrees the government issued a number of others among which a reorganisation of national health insurance was of special importance.

A decree of 4 January 1919 compelled the employers to reinstate their former labourers on demobilisation. At the same time measures were devised to protect employees from arbitrary dismissal. Any employee who thought himself to have been unfairly treated could appeal to an arbitration court. In case of necessity the demobilisation authorities had the power to determine who should be dismissed and who should be retained in employment.

A decree of 23 December 1918 regulated wage agreements. It laid down that a wage agreement that had been concluded in any branch of employment between the competent trade union authority and the competent employers’ authority had absolute validity – that is, no employer could enter into any other agreement of his own initiative. A carefully thought-out organisation of arbitral courts was established to decide all disputes.

The government also introduced universal suffrage for all men and women of twenty years old and upwards. All political elections in Germany in the future were to be held in accordance with this radical principle. It applied equally to the elections for the German National Assembly as also to those for all provincial legislatures and town councils. All public institutions were abolished that had been constituted in accordance with any other electoral principle. This involved the disappearance of the Prussian Upper House, the former Prussian Lower House that had been elected in accordance with the three-class suffrage, and the municipal councils that were also elected on the class vote.

A survey of the legislation introduced by the Council of People’s Representatives reveals that the government was inspired by certain fundamental principles peculiar to Majority Socialism, such as that the German nation should decide its own fate in accordance with definite democratic principles. Every decision taken in parliament as well as in the tiniest village council should be an expression of the people’s will. If the people themselves were not sufficiently experienced to make proper use of universal suffrage, then all the wisdom of the new revolutionary leaders would be of no avail. It was to be expected that, under the influence of the military collapse and the revolution, all elections in the immediate future would show enormous democratic majorities. This assumption was fully justified in the event. At the elections to the National Assembly on 19 January 1919, the Socialist and democratic parties together obtained four-fifths of the total votes, while only one-fifth were cast for the more or less powerless supporters of the former regime. Similar results were shown at elections to provincial assemblies, communes, etc. The democratic foundation for the reconstruction of Germany appeared to have been well and truly laid.

On this democratic foundation the Majority Socialists hoped to secure the future existence of the working class. A long-cherished ideal of the Socialist International found its realisation in the introduction of an eight-hour day. The workman was protected from arbitrary dismissal, the trade unions were confirmed in all their rights, and demobilised workmen were reinstated in their former employment. Moreover, if in spite of all these measures a workman could not find employment, the commune was made responsible for his support. The social as well as the political legislation introduced by the Government of the People’s Representatives denoted important gains for the proletariat. Nevertheless this carefully thought-out legislation soon revealed itself as superfluous, and the German working classes displayed little gratitude for the benefits conferred upon them. The two aims which the government sought to attain – the democratisation of Germany and the safeguarding of the working class in such a democracy – were never realised.

The most remarkable feature displayed by this legislation was its one-sidedness. The government proved itself effective only in the sphere in which lay the interests of the old German Social Democrats, and failed completely in those spheres in which the SPD had displayed a lack of interest in prewar days. Social reform and electoral reform were, and remained, the special objects of Social Democratic policy. Everything else was either ignored or attacked indecisively and with a lack of enthusiasm. If the connexion between the prewar activities of the Social Democrats and their actions during the revolution is clearly understood, there is no danger that unjust criticisms will be made of individuals. It was the lack of sufficient political experience and training prior to 1914 that caused the failure of the German Social Democrats in the German Revolution. If it is sought to cast the responsibility upon a single individual, then it would undoubtedly from an historical standpoint be more accurate to lay the blame upon August Bebel than upon either Ebert or Scheidemann.

In drafting its legislation, the Government of the People’s Representatives forgot that social reform is like an organism that cannot exist without air, and that its success is dependent upon the general economic situation. The most ideal social reforms are of no avail if the employer is not wealthy enough to support the cost; if the state is too poor to fulfil its social obligations; if the workman finds his wages rendered valueless in his hands by the swift progress of inflation; or, finally, if the political power in the state is seized by forces inimical to labour that are able at will to pick holes in social legislation. The fate of social reform in Germany depended in November 1918 and the succeeding months upon that of German economy. Yet the government achieved nothing whatever in the sphere of economic policy.

In considering German economic life during the revolutionary period two manifestations of the crisis must be distinguished – the permanent crisis in German political economy that developed as a result of the World War and which has persisted to the present day; the particular crisis extant at the time of the revolution and the end of the war. The permanent crisis in German economic life is due to the fact that a densely populated industrial country with comparatively limited territory, like Germany, is dependent upon foreign countries for its means of livelihood. The balance of foodstuffs and raw materials that the German nation requires to make life possible were in prewar days paid for by the yield of its flourishing export trade and by the interest paid on its capital abroad. The World War destroyed German export trade. Quite apart from the reparation demands of the Entente, it was a hopeless task for German industry after 1918 to find any means of paying for the foreign supplies that were a vital necessity to the German people. To this was added the reduction of its sources of supplies of raw materials and food-stuffs by the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, the Polish districts and the colonies.

These problems, which resulted from German trade and debt-balances and reparations, induced the chronic postwar crisis in German economic life. During the months following on the revolution, however, Germany was much more occupied with the acute crisis which came with the cessation of hostilities. German industry had, until 1918 November, been engaged in making war material. The demand for this suddenly ceased, and it was necessary to readjust industry to peacetime conditions. Relations between German manufacturers and their foreign customers had, needless to say, been broken off, and were not easy to re-establish. There was every probability of serious unemployment. For the time being, however, unemployment was kept within reasonable limits by the government’s control of demobilisation. During the first half-year of the republic, the number of unemployed in the whole of Germany rose to one million, 25 per cent of whom were in Greater Berlin.

The terrible dearth of food-stuffs and raw materials which had existed during the latter part of the war did not come to an end with the conclusion of the armistice, since the Entente permitted only small quantities of goods to pass into Germany. The statesmen of the victorious powers wished to keep a heavy hand upon Germany until a definitive peace had been signed. In the state of absolute disorganisation prevailing in the markets of the world, it would have been difficult for Germany to import much more even if the Allies had been willing for her to do so. These difficulties were further increased by certain psychological manifestations in the German proletariat. After four years of war and famine and privation, the working classes were utterly exhausted, physically impaired and wretchedly discouraged. Their weariness and depression were shown after 9 November in an astonishing diminution in the rate of output. Moreover, millions of workers were filled with the desire somehow to get away from the old economic system of private capitalism, and they were not really anxious to continue working for their old employers. There was an extraordinary number of strikes in all parts of the country, especially after December 1918. The workers wished to take advantage of the shifting of political power to secure higher wages. And in the new year came also purely political strikes.

All these circumstances – weariness of the workers, disinclination to work and strikes – caused a calamitous decrease in production, especially of the most important raw materials. The dearth of coal was one of the most serious problems during the winter, since the miners demanded that before all else the pits should be nationalised, and opposed by passive resistance and strikes the continuance of private ownership. A further evil was the scarcity of transport. Railway material had been completely worn out during the war, and a number of the best engines and coaches had to be delivered to the Allies.

Since the end of the war the German currency had become increasingly devaluated. Quite apart from the reparation demands, Germany’s stock of gold and securities was not nearly sufficient to pay for her necessary purchases abroad. Hence she was obliged to try to obtain goods against paper marks. The tender of vast quantities of paper marks in foreign countries was bound to depreciate them. Towards the middle of the year 1919 the value of the mark had gone down to about one-third. In view of Germany’s growing indebtedness to other countries, a certain devaluation of the mark was unavoidable. Not even the victorious powers, such as France and Italy, though their economic situation was incomparably better than that of Germany, escaped inflation in the postwar period. Neither the greatest genius nor the firmest handling of German finance could at that time have saved the gold value of the mark. The depreciation of the currency which coincided approximately with the first year of the republic was unavoidable in the existing circumstances. The wild speculative devaluation that occurred in 1921-23 must, however, be regarded very differently.

During the first few months after the revolution, the Representatives of the People, and the leaders of Social Democracy, hardly realised the full extent of the continuous crisis that confronted German industry. On the other hand, they gave way to what was almost panic over the momentary crisis. The shortage of foodstuffs and raw materials was only temporary, and would be automatically overcome as soon as peacetime conditions had been restored in the markets of the world. Nor were the difficulties of the German transport system insurmountable. And the rate of output in the factories was certain to increase as soon as the workers were properly fed again and were really reconciled to the new situation. Finally, the devaluation of the currency within limits must be accepted as unavoidable, and care must be taken only that these limits were not widened by speculative manipulation.

The temporary crisis in German industry was therefore undoubtedly curable if a definitive peace was concluded as soon as possible, and Germany did not lose her head. At the same time this would obviously not have abolished the chronic crisis. The Representatives of the People and the leaders of the Majority Socialist Party were meanwhile filled with deepest anxiety lest German industry should collapse entirely owing to the coal shortage, the transport crisis and the famine. Hence one appeal after another was issued to the workers, urging them to work hard, to keep calm and not to strike, for otherwise a collapse would be unavoidable. These paternal admonitions to diligence and obedience with their gloomy forebodings made the worst possible impression upon the working classes. After the victory of the revolution, the workers wanted to see new paths opening before them, they wanted to take an active part in the reconstruction of industry. The strikes were an expression of their desire to achieve new economic and social conditions. Instead, they were asked to continue working for their old employers with empty stomachs and leaky boots. The extremists among the workers explained the proclamations to mean that the Representatives of the People had neither the wish nor the power to make any real change in the existing economic conditions.

An example may be given to show how little the leading men in Germany realised the nature of the approaching permanent economic crisis, and were completely taken up with trivial cares. Rudolf Wissell, one of the best brains among the Majority Socialists, who was one of the Representatives of the People in 1919, and later became Reich Minister for Economy, wrote an article on 7 July 1919, discussing the nationalisation of mines. [2] He said that in the event of expropriation the former owners of the mines must be indemnified. He then continued:

If the government were to assume responsibility for these indemnities with money at its present depreciated value, they must be rated immensely high. Anything we buy today must be paid for at three times its prewar rate, not because the value has risen, but because the value of our paper currency has sunk so low. And an expensive piece of real property like the mines that we want to nationalise would be paid for at a ridiculously low nominal value by means of banknotes or promissory notes. This nominal value, however, will rise again. That is to say, the value of money will increase again. Anyone paying off a prewar debt of a thousand marks today still nominally pays a thousand marks, but actually he is only giving a third of the value he received in prewar times. And anyone who contracts a debt today will have to pay back more when our currency has improved again.

Wissell stated that he would not take any part in promoting nationalisation on those terms – ‘giving the employer depreciated currency which we hope will have risen to two or three times its value in three or five or ten years’ time’. Thus Wissell really believed that the devaluation of the mark was only temporary, and that the paper mark would be able to regain its gold parity within a few years. So little did he understand the general economic situation in Germany after the loss of the war.

The Council of the Representatives of the People shrank from the idea of any intervention in economic life. They did not wish to forestall the coming National Assembly in this matter. The government summoned a number of experts to form a Nationalisation Commission, and instructed it to discover which branches of industry were ‘ripe’. On the other hand, the Council of the Representatives of the People could not make up its mind to pass laws interfering seriously with the conditions of private ownership. Nevertheless, intervention in the question of land tenure and also of mines was essential in the interests of democracy. The outworn system of large estates which dated from feudal days was at that time abolished in most European countries, not only in Soviet Russia, but also in the Baltic States, in Czechoslovakia and in Romania. An agrarian reform on these lines could undoubtedly have been introduced into Prussia east of the Elbe. It was not essentially a Socialist measure. Nevertheless the expropriation of the estates of the Prussian nobility and the parcellation of the land among the peasants would have made democracy secure east of the Elbe, and have put a final end to the power of the feudal aristocracy. The failure to nationalise the large estates and the disappearance of the workmen’s and soldiers’ councils east of the Elbe brought a return to the social and economic conditions of prewar days there. Since the democratic republic had not the power to strike a blow at the Prussian feudal aristocracy it was unable to win the peasants over to its side.

Great differences of opinion existed on the question as to which industries were ready for nationalisation. Nearly all socialist thinkers, however, and also the great mass of the workers, were convinced that mining was one of them. To extract coal from the existing pits required no special gifts. It was a purely technical problem which was as easy to solve in a nationalised mine as in a privately-owned one. Nationalisation of the mines would certainly not have diminished production. But it would have made a great difference in the balance of political power. A particularly influential group of great industrialists, who had made their dominant influence felt most forcibly in the past, would thereby have been eliminated. The German republic would have remained a middle-class state even if the mines had been nationalised. Nevertheless the workers would have seen in such a step evidence of a serious desire on the part of the government to introduce socialism. Confidence in the new state and the new order would have been immensely strengthened among the proletariat.

The material objections made by the leading Majority Socialists to the nationalisation of the mines were quite unsound. Wissell’s curious monetary theory has already been mentioned above. It was further asserted that, while the Entente would respect private property in Germany, all public property would be regarded as pledges for reparations. Hence there was a risk that nationalised mines might be confiscated by the Allies. Subsequent events proved this danger to be non-existent. The German railways did not come under Entente supervision until 1924, as a result of the Dawes Plan; and the adoption of the Dawes Plan was a voluntary step on the part of Germany. The treatment of nationalised mines would have been no different from that meted out to national railways. Moreover, the government might have found suitable means to compensate the expropriated landowners and mine-owners. It would have made no difference to the net political result.

The Representatives of the People did not touch the property either of the East Elbian landowners or of the coal magnates in the Ruhr district. A positive economic policy in the direction of socialism would nevertheless have been possible even on the basis of the sanctity of private property. German industry might have been grouped in large syndicates. An economic programme might have been drawn up for each branch of industry, and the workers’ councils might have been given an important share in its execution. Even if such an organisation had taken a long time to set up, the foundations at least might have been laid during the first few weeks. Such planned economy would have shown the government’s willingness to fall in with the desire of the working class for socialisation, and the interest of the miners in production might have been stimulated afresh. Nothing of the kind was done. The decree of the Representatives of the People of 23 December, regarding the wage agreements, did order committees of the workers to be set up in all industries and trades. These committees, however, were to concern themselves only with the application of the wage agreements, and with the personal affairs of the workers in the several industries and trades. They gained no influence over production. Since the Socialist Government of the Representatives of the People had no economic policy whatever, and simply allowed things to take their course, conditions became increasingly chaotic week by week in German industry. Angry and hopeless, the workers tried to extricate themselves from their difficulties by strikes, which only increased the general confusion.

The military policy of the Representatives of the People was just as catastrophic as their economic policy. When the government assumed office on 10 November there were millions of soldiers on whom it could rely. But it should have remembered that within a few weeks the German army of the World War would disappear. The men wanted to go home, to change out of their uniforms and to be reabsorbed into their families and occupations. That was true both of the home garrisons and of the front-line army. Since Christmas was approaching, demobilisation was speeded up. It was to be assumed with certainty that by the end of December only very few troops would be left in the barracks – men who had no families, or no work in view, and who preferred to continue drawing their pay as soldiers for a time instead of going on the dole. The basis of political power in the republic was, however, shifted by the disintegration of the German army. Any men of the old army who remained on the active list were either totally unfit to fight, or else they were only interested in serving as mercenaries. This meant that by the end of December the government would have no really reliable military force available for military or police purposes. Thus the government would be actually defenceless and at the mercy of any chance happening.

The Representatives of the People should certainly have reckoned with this possibility and have taken the necessary steps to organise a reliable democratic police force after the demobilisation of the old army. But nothing was done. A volunteer corps for national defence was created on paper, but it never materialised.

The former High Command had put its services at the disposal of the new government after 9 November. Field-Marshal von Hindenburg was officially in command of the armies in the field. The real commander was General Groener. The High Command declared that it was prepared to lead back the army from the western front, and the Representatives of the People gladly agreed. Although, as has been shown above, the republican government had nothing to fear from the men on active service, it was a mistake to leave the Imperial generals at the head of the army. Every serious revolution that has broken out among the masses of the people has created its own particular defence force and produced its own army leaders and military organisers. The immense popular force called into being by revolution has transmuted itself into military energy. The improvised leaders of the troops have been victorious in battle. So it was in the great English Revolution, in the French and the Russian Revolutions. But the German Revolution, that uprising of social workers thirsting for peace, brought forth no Cromwell, no Carnot, no Trotsky. In the great historical revolutions the new leaders have been confident of victory. The men of the German Revolution did not even feel that they could bring their army home from the front without the help of the Imperial General Staff.

The High Command remained in the hands of Hindenburg and Groener, who moved their headquarters to Cassel, where General Groener began a vigorous political campaign. In those days General Groener was what might be called a conservative republican. He did not desire the return of William II. But he did seek to oppose the workmen’s and soldiers’ councils whose activities he regarded as productive only of chaos. He wished to restore what he believed to be law and order in Germany. He wished to create a new army in which the Imperial corps of officers might find fresh employment, and to make life secure again for middle-class society.

General Groener and his followers among the senior officers realised from the very outset that their aims would be achieved not by a frontal attack upon the socialist proletariat, but only by creating discord in the Social Democratic ranks. An attempt must be made to mobilise the conservative wing of the Majority Socialists against the Independents, the Spartacists and the councils as a whole. If this succeeded, it would be possible to overthrow revolutionary socialism by a coalition between the right wing of the Majority Socialists, the officers and the middle classes. If the officers should achieve their aim, Germany would be made safe for the middle classes, but democratic socialism would be dead.

These officers were of the opinion that the Majority Socialist Ebert was the most likely person to agree with their plans. The High Command therefore overwhelmed him with professions of loyalty and with promises to support him against Spartacist agitators. There is no proof that Ebert actually entered into a plot with the officers against the revolutionary working classes. [3] Ebert never failed in his duty of loyalty towards his fellow-members of the USPD. But he was oppressed with a sense of the immense difficulties confronting the German government. To economic troubles and the anxieties of foreign policy were added a threat of separatist movements not only in the Rhineland, but also in various other parts of the country. In these circumstances Ebert wished to reduce to a minimum the possibilities of friction and to act as mediator between all parties. If the High Command made professions of loyalty to him, Ebert saw no reason to administer a rebuff. Nevertheless it was a tactical error for Ebert to have admitted the High Command too far into his confidence. One outward expression of the relationship was a private telephone line leading from Ebert’s room at the Foreign Office to the Army Headquarters at Cassel. Ebert undoubtedly believed that he was doing the republic a service by ensuring the loyalty of the High Command. If, however, it had ever become known that Ebert enjoyed the particular confidence of the High Command, the relations between the Representatives of the People and the working classes would have been made more difficult, and the door opened to all manner of hare-brained schemes.

It might at least have been expected that the German Revolution would have abolished the outworn system of individual small states and immediately created a single unified German state. Here the Government of the Representatives of the People failed again. The individual German states were permitted to exist in their old form, to keep their separate governments and to elect new parliaments. The most dangerous and most unnatural form of particularism was to be found in the Prussian state. The historical evolution which had led to the foundation of the Reich in 1871 had conjured up the dualism ‘Prussia – Reich’. After the fall of the Hohenzollerns the separate existence of a single federal state which included two-thirds of the whole territory of the Reich had become utterly pointless. The continued existence of the small states made a perpetual waste of time and money unavoidable, and furthermore the administrations of the individual states had hitherto always been the strongholds of the ruling bureaucracy. Nothing less than the abolition of the separate states could achieve the downfall of the historic German bureaucracy.

Once again, however, the Representatives of the People were afraid to act decisively. The only step that was taken towards the unification of Germany was the incorporation of the eight little Thuringian states in a single unified Thuringia. When Professor Preuss by order of the government published a draft of the Constitution of the German Republic, and in this draft quite properly suggested the liquidation of Prussia, a ridiculous storm of protests arose on all sides. No one supported Preuss; and so Prussia was preserved to the German republic. Kurt Eisner, the Bavarian Prime Minister, was so much impressed by the incompetence of the government in Berlin that he believed it to be essential in the interests of the revolution to preserve Bavaria’s independent position.

The attitude of the German Republic to the deposed princes was also not clearly defined by the Representatives of the People. They accepted the abdication of the former rulers, but made no arrangement about their property. Either the property of the princely houses might have been confiscated in its entirety, or a part might have been left to the owners, and the rest declared to be state property. But the whole question remained wrapped in obscurity, and in later years the most awkward situations were to arise from it for the German republic.

It is impossible to build up a revolutionary state with the civil service and judicial apparatus of a vanished regime. This miracle, however, was expected of the German republic. [4] The special law governing the civil service whereby a civil servant could be dismissed only after a long disciplinary investigation, and in the end generally got his pension in spite of any delinquency, remained in operation. Even the irremovability of the Imperial judges was respected. The consequence was that, on the disappearance of the workmen’s and soldiers’ councils, the Imperial administrative and judicial system came to life again. The few Social Democrats who were newcomers to official posts could do nothing to change the spirit of the bureaucratic administration.

Another of the tasks the German Revolution should have undertaken was the separation of church and state. Any form of religious persecution would have been a grave error, and would have alienated the Catholic workers and peasants. The separation of church from state and the liberation of education from ecclesiastical control could, however, have been carried through without hurting the religious feelings of anybody. Once again the Representatives of the People failed. Since the individual states were permitted to continue with their own government, they also preserved their own ecclesiastical and educational systems. The Prussian Ministry of Education was after the revolution jointly administered by the Majority Socialist, Hänisch, and a representative of the USPD, Adolf Hoffmann. The latter, who notwithstanding some peculiarities of expression was an intelligent and well-educated man, urged the disestablishment of the church and a radical educational reform. But Hänisch, a completely passive individual, prevented any definite move being made. Only the clerical supervision of schools was abolished. The fact that the university charters also remained unchanged is in these circumstances not surprising.

The Council of People’s Representatives generally presented a united front externally. The three Majority Socialists, and Dittmann and Haase of the USPD, at least agreed upon the basic principles of policy. Emil Barth, the third Independent Socialist Representative of the People, did occasionally dissent from their views. Barth was a member of the Berlin group of the Obleute. Neither they nor the Spartacists had officially joined the Government of the Representatives of the People, but had gone into opposition. Barth had been taken into the Cabinet on his personal merits in order that he might act as liaison officer between the government and the revolutionary workers. Thus Barth was on the one hand to represent the policy of the government, and on the other that of the opposition. A keener brain than his might have failed to deal with such an anomalous situation. The cooperation of Barth, who finally fell between all the stools, was of little practical value to the Representatives of the People.

During November and the early part of December, Germany was shaken by the conflict between those who supported the National Assembly and those who were in favour of the councils. The Spartacist Union and the Obleute together organised a lively agitation against the government. The Majority Socialists retaliated, and the official USPD sought to mediate between them. By the time the republic was a few weeks old the middle classes realised that the Representatives of the People were not going to exercise any ruthless dictatorial repression against those who held different opinions. Hence the middle-class parties reconstituted themselves, and the middle-class press gave free expression to their views. The whole of the middle class was solidly in favour of the National Assembly as opposed to the councils, and made every effort to widen the gulf between the Majority Socialists and the extremist working men.

This atmosphere surrounded the events that occurred in Berlin on 6 December, which were to be of fateful importance in the further history of the republic. A conspiracy was hatched by political adventurers who were joined by certain non-commissioned officers and officials of the Foreign Office. Their intention was to make a sudden attack on the Berlin Executive, and by arresting its members to paralyse the central organisation of the hated councils system. At the same time Ebert was to be proclaimed President of the republic. Under existing conditions this fantastic project held out no prospect of success. The time was not yet ripe for an open counter-revolutionary movement opposed to the councils. Nor is there any proof that the High Command or even Ebert himself were in any way parties to the project. Nevertheless it was dangerously significant that such a plan should have been conceived at all. If the counter-revolutionaries quite simply looked upon Ebert as their man, then he himself had not made his disapproval of such projects sufficiently clear.

The rebellion on 6 December failed completely. The Executive Committee was taken by surprise, but was released again directly afterwards, and Ebert replied by a discreet negative to those who wished to proclaim him President of the republic. The ringleaders of the conspiracy were arrested. If the affair had stopped there, it would only have proved the strength of the revolutionary forces. Unfortunately, there was serious bloodshed in Berlin which did great harm to the republican cause. The military commander of Berlin was a leading Majority Socialist named Wels. When he heard of the surprise attack upon the Executive Committee, he gave the alarm to the troops in Berlin, and had all approaches to the inner city blocked. A procession of Spartacist demonstrators chanced to come upon one of the military cordons. There was a skirmish in the course of which the soldiers fired on the Spartacists. Sixteen persons were killed. It is possible that this affair was only the result of an unfortunate concatenation of circumstances. It is also possible that some of those involved in the conspiracy with an interest in increasing antagonism had a hand in it.

The events of 6 December left a particularly strong impression upon the minds of the extremists among the Berlin workers. It was only too easy to make it appear that there was a connexion between the attempt on the Executive Committee, the proclamation of Ebert as Reich President, and the killing of peaceful Spartacist demonstrators. The distrust of the Majority Socialists in the government felt by these elements in the working classes increased enormously. The government was accused of making a compact with the militarist counter-revolutionaries to shoot down the revolutionary workers. A deep estrangement arose, at least in Berlin, between the adherents of the government and the radical working classes. At the same time there is no proof that the Majority Socialists were implicated in the events of 6 December. Nevertheless the sin of political omission remained. Ebert and his closer friends were incapable of drawing a sufficiently strong line of demarcation between themselves and the forces of the old regime.

In order finally to clear up the difficulties connected with the National Assembly, and to settle the political future, the government determined to call a general Congress of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Councils in Berlin. The congress met from 16 to 20 December. On the whole only the industrial workers and that part of the army which was not yet demobilised took part in the polling. The government, and especially the Majority Socialists, gained an overwhelming majority. Of about four hundred and fifty members of the congress, three hundred and fifty were in sympathy with the government. Most of them were Majority Socialists, and in addition there were a few from the middle-class parties and moderate Independents. The Spartacist Union was virtually unrepresented in the congress. Neither Liebknecht nor Rosa Luxemburg had a seat. On the other hand, the Obleute had won a number of seats in Berlin, and the delegates from other radical workmen’s councils joined them. The opposition in the congress, under the leadership of Richard Müller, Däumig and Ledebour, numbered about a hundred.

The government majority stood firm from the very outset. It voted for the election of a National Assembly. The nineteenth of January 1919 was fixed as the polling day. There was considerable unanimity in important questions between the Majority Socialists and the USPD party leaders. Dittmann’s report upon the political situation, which laid strong emphasis upon proletarian unity, was greeted with enthusiastic applause by the Majority Socialists. The report of the Independent theorist Hilferding upon the possibilities of carrying out nationalisation was also received with approval by the Majority Socialist delegates. But there was the strongest antagonism between Dittmann, Haase and Hilferding on the one hand, and those members of their own party whose views tended towards those of the Obleute on the other. The opposition acted skilfully and resolutely, and strengthened its position by holding great demonstrations of the radical workers of Berlin. The representatives of the Berlin Executive succeeded in seizing the leadership of the USPD representation in the congress. In matters of party policy Dittmann’s and Haase’s position was extremely difficult. They manifestly possessed the sympathy of the Majority Socialists, but had apparently no influence whatever over their own party. The elections to the new Central Council of the German Republic clarified the situation. The Congress of Councils regarded itself as being the bearer of the sovereign power of the revolutionary people. Before it was dissolved, a committee called the Central Council was elected from its midst. This committee was to sit in perpetuity and to supervise the Council of the Representatives of the People. It was even empowered to dismiss individual representatives and to appoint new ones.

When the time came to elect the Central Council, those members of the USPD who shared the views of Däumig and Richard Müller decided not to take part in the polling, but to leave the Central Council entirely in the hands of the Majority Socialists. That was perfectly logical from the point of view of the Obleute. They refused to have any direct or indirect part in a government which they regarded as nothing but a disguised coalition with capitalism and counter-revolution. [5] They were prepared to enter a truly Socialist government, and no other. The Central Council, however, was just as much a part of the Reich government as the Council of People’s Representatives itself. Political integrity demanded that the opposition should not at the same time form part of the government.

The USPD fraction’s decision in this matter made the position of Independent Socialist Representatives of the People untenable. They remained responsible members of a government with which their own party refused to have any connexion.

There was really only one course open to Dittmann and Haase – to take formal leave of their old party and to announce their adherence to the Majority Socialists. The course of events at the congress had shown that in all important political questions Dittmann and Haase agreed with the Majority Socialists, but that they were not in agreement with the left wing of their own party. In reality the USPD leaders were not nearly as isolated as appeared on the surface in the congress. If there had been a split, Dittmann and Haase would have carried a considerable part of the USPD with them. They had aroused strong sympathies in a great number of the Majority Socialist workers. The authority of men like Haase, Dittmann, Hilferding and Bernstein would have largely counterbalanced that of Ebert and Scheidemann. The policy of the Majority Socialists would not have drifted over to that of its extreme right wing, but would have represented the views and desires of the central mass of the German working class.

Dittmann and Haase, however, could not make up their minds to take so radical a step. The best was made of a bad job. They remained members of the USPD, but at the same time they kept their seats on the Council of People’s Representatives. Emil Barth also remained a member of the council. The three Independents were acknowledged by the new purely Majority Socialist Central Council without any difficulty. There was evidently a strong desire not to disturb the cooperation between the Majority Socialists and the USPD leaders.

This did not, of course, signify that the affair had been cleared up. It was not a personal question. What functions Dittmann and Haase carried out as individuals, what membership card they carried, were not of themselves matters of world-shaking importance. But they represented the decisively important central and moderate opinion among the socialist working class that embraced millions of the proletariat. The fate of the German Revolution might depend upon whether this tendency was put into action or not. Eduard Bernstein returned to the Majority Socialist Party as an individual, but was unable to gain any strong influence in it.

The catastrophe which was to cause an irreparable breach in the ranks of the socialist workers was not long in coming. It occurred three days after the final meeting of the Congress of Councils. The immediate occasion was the impossible military situation. Among those troops which had not yet been demobilised, the so-called People’s Naval Division held a peculiar position. It consisted of some one thousand sailors who had come to Berlin during November. The revolution had started in the navy, and therefore the People’s Naval Division considered itself to be a particularly important unit. It was quartered in the palace in Berlin. To outward seeming the sailors were thoroughly revolutionary in sentiment, but in reality they were nothing but a set of mercenaries who felt much more strongly about their own material interests than they did on any political question. Complaints had been made of the way the sailors behaved in the palace. It was said that thefts had occurred. It is difficult to discover whether the accusations were true or not. Nor does it matter historically. The Government of the People’s Representatives ordered the sailors to leave the palace and to shift their headquarters to the royal stables. The sailors agreed to do so, but demanded eighty thousand marks in pay.

It was a fantastic state of affairs in which the sailors were negotiating with the government of the German Republic on an equal footing as one power with another. The sailors knew very well that at the stage which demobilisation had reached the government was practically defenceless. It was finally agreed that the sailors should deliver up the keys of the palace to Wels in return for the eighty thousand marks. As the negotiation proceeded, it took on a more and more farcical character. The sailors did not hand over the keys to Wels, but took them to Emil Barth. Thereupon Wels did not pay out the eighty thousand marks. The sailors believed that the money was to be withheld from them, and that they would find themselves penniless at Christmas-time. Hence they decided to act.

One detachment of sailors went to the residence of the Military Governor of Berlin. Wels was taken into custody, mishandled and hustled away. Another detachment went to the offices of the Representatives of the People and detained those rulers of the German Reich who happened to be present. They were forbidden to leave the offices and the telephone wires were cut. Only the private line connecting Ebert with the High Command escaped the vigilance of the sailors. And thus Ebert was able to put through a call to General Groener for immediate help. The representatives were soon released by the sailors. But there was always the chance of a recurrence of the revolt. Wels remained in the hands of the Naval Division, and fears were entertained for his life.

The Government of People’s Representatives was indeed backed by at least three-quarters of the nation, and the highest revolutionary body – the Congress of Councils – had only a few days before it carried a vote of confidence in the government by an overwhelming majority. But this did not save the government from being at the mercy of the whims of a thousand sailors. Any men of the old army who still remained in barracks had no wish to be mixed up in unpleasant affairs. Nor was Eichhorn, the Chief of the Berlin Police and a member of the USPD, whose views tended towards those of the Obleute, any more anxious to sacrifice himself for the sake of the Representatives of the People. Moreover, his own forces were certainly not trained for action.

There were, however, in and about Berlin a few regiments of front-line troops which had not yet been demobilised. They were under the command of General Lequis. The High Command acted promptly in answer to Ebert’s call and ordered General Lequis to restore order. On 24 December there was heavy fighting in the heart of Berlin. The troops attacked the palace, and the stables where the sailors had taken up their position. The generals hoped to gain a military success that would completely destroy left-wing socialism and give a new turn to the German Revolution. But no such success followed. The soldiers carried out their orders indifferently. They feared that they were being inveigled into some counter-revolutionary manoeuvre, and in this idea they were encouraged by the Berlin workers. Hence no progress was made. Negotiations were initiated, and eventually an agreement was concluded between the sailors and the government. The sailors released Wels, evacuated the palace, and were given their eighty thousand marks in return for a promise to undertake no further armed action against the government. They were also granted a full amnesty, and their unit remained in existence. The mutiny of, and the outrages committed by, the People’s Naval Division went unpunished.

The events of 23 and 24 December constituted a serious moral defeat for the government. It had been unable to enforce its will against a small band of rebels, and had been obliged to submit to the insults and humiliations heaped on it by the sailors. Nevertheless the Representatives of the People, and the three Majority Socialists in particular, cannot be accused of any culpable demeanour during this episode. They were undoubtedly in the right as regards the sailors. If troops only rendered obedience when they felt like it, no political system could maintain itself. Nor can Ebert be reproached for invoking the assistance of the generals who were loyal to the government in suppressing the sailors’ mutiny. The action of the generals was likely to have serious political consequences. At the moment, however, the government was like a drowning man who clutches at the first thing he sees.

There is no excuse for the sailors. No real political motives existed to justify their actions. They were only fighting for their pay. It is significant that this same soit-disant revolutionary People’s Naval Division remained neutral in January, when the real battle for supremacy began between the Majority Socialists and their left-wing antagonists. As revolutionaries they should at least have respected the decrees of the Congress of Councils.

This objective view of events was not shared by the revolutionary Berlin working men. The distrust of the Representatives of the People that had existed since 6 December among the working classes in Berlin was now immensely increased. The workers in the great industries in Berlin did not trouble about the details of the quarrel between the sailors and the government; they only saw that the Majority Socialist leaders together with the generals were trying to annihilate a revolutionary detachment; that Ebert and the officers were bringing artillery into action in order to secure the victory of the counter-revolution. The funeral of the sailors who had fallen in the fight at the palace became a vast demonstration of sympathy on the part of the Berlin working classes. In the procession were men carrying banners with the inscription: ‘We accuse Ebert, Landsberg and Scheidemann of the murder of the sailors.’

It so happened that Haase and Dittmann were not present when the sailors attacked the government offices. Only the Majority Socialists and Barth were in the building at the time. Since the latter was known to sympathise with the sailors, the whole responsibility for the government’s measures and for calling out the troops rested with the Majority Socialists. When Dittmann and Haase returned, they felt unable to continue to bear the responsibility for the government’s policy. They appealed to the Central Council as arbitrator, and when it approved in essentials the policy of the Majority Socialists, Dittmann and Haase and Barth resigned from the government on 29 December.

The attitude of the three Independents was not objectively justifiable, but was explicable on party political grounds. Anyone who considers the events of 23 and 24 December at all dispassionately cannot censure the Majority Socialist Representatives of the People. No government could exist that permitted a handful of mutinous sailors to arrest ministers because their pay was in arrears. Hence Dittmann and Haase sought to widen the sphere of conflict in the accusations they brought against Ebert and Scheidemann. They emphasised that there were differences of opinion on matters of principle regarding military policy between themselves and the Majority Socialists; that the Majority Socialists were prepared to put their confidence in the Imperial generals in military matters; that that was a great mistake from the point of view of the revolution; and that the USPD could not countenance such a policy.

In reality there was substantial foundation for the accusation that Ebert was treating the generals with too great confidence. But if there was a danger of Ebert’s going too far in this direction, then that danger was only increased by the departure of the Independents from the government. Men whose principles in political matters are completely opposed cannot sit together in the same Cabinet. Nevertheless, a week earlier, on 20 December, Dittmann and Haase in the Congress of Councils had been practically of one mind with the Majority Socialists on basic political questions. They were unanimous in their wish to remain in the government, and even Emil Barth had not resigned at the close of the congress. What had happened during that week to bring about a change in a fundamental political issue as well as in the attitude of the leaders of the two Socialist Parties?

The fatal half-heartedness shown by the leading Independents at the congress as a matter of party tactics now produced its results. On 20 December, they had not been strong enough to banish the Obleute from their organisation. Now they were obliged to take the consequences. Dittmann and Haase felt that it would be impossible to weather the storm which was certain to rise in the ranks of the USPD against the ‘murderers of the sailors’. They felt that they must leave the government as quickly as possible, create a political alibi for themselves, and thus regain the confidence of their party.

This was the end of the coalition government of 10 November. The events of the last week in December represented a severe material and moral injury to the German Revolution and to the socialist cause. After the cheap triumph won by the sailors, the government appeared utterly supine. Any venturesome man felt that he might risk defying its authority. The vote of confidence given by the Central Council to the Representatives of the People impressed nobody as long as it was not backed up by force of arms. Thus the hopeless neglect of the German army, and the incompetence of the Representatives of the People in all military questions, took its revenge.

At the same time the Majority Socialist leaders found themselves in a position of dangerous moral isolation among the working classes. Men like Haase, Dittmann and Hilferding, who had been ready only a week earlier to act in unison with the Majority Socialists, now declared that Ebert and Scheidemann were the prisoners of the military counter-revolution, and that nobody must have anything to do with them. Until this moment the working classes had been divided into two parts – a large majority that was content with middle-class democracy and gradual nationalisation, and a minority that demanded thoroughgoing socialisation and a Soviet (Consiliar) Republic. With the challenge by the USPD leaders to Ebert and Scheidemann began the split within the majority of the Socialist workers. Not only the comparatively small number of the adherents of Dittmann and Haase went into opposition. Millions of workmen who still voted Majority Socialist were filled with misgivings. At the end of December 1918 began the process that under the operation of the so-called Noske policy was to lead to the destruction of the great Majority Socialist Party. [6]

Towards the end of the year 1918 it was comparatively easy to foresee that further severe crises awaited the German republic. Opposition against the Majority Socialist government had vastly increased both numerically and morally. It was very doubtful whether the differences could be resolved by means of peaceful agitation and propaganda.

As a prelude to future events a group of revolutionary workers occupied the offices of the Vorwärts during the Christmas holidays, and announced that this chief organ of the Majority Socialist Party was in future to be the property of the revolutionary working classes. During the war the Vorwärts had originally belonged to the opposition within the party. In 1916 the party leaders had taken possession of the paper. This so-called ‘rape of the Vorwärts’ had enraged the workers who had thereby lost their newspaper and were unable under the control of the wartime censorship to bring out a new opposition paper in Berlin. Since the revolution, all three Socialist tendencies had their own papers. The Vorwärts (Onwards) remained the organ of the Majority Socialists, the USPD had its Freiheit (Liberty), and the Spartacus Union its Rote Fahne (Red Flag). So long as all three separate Socialist tendencies existed, and were obliged to live together, there was no reasonable cause for taking the Majority Socialists’ Berlin paper from them. But the act had for the utopian-radical workers a sort of symbolic meaning. Without regard to actual conditions, the utopians wished to regain the Vorwärts much as a flag is regained that has fallen into the hands of the enemy. Only after lengthy negotiations and the intervention of the Obleute was the release of the Vorwärts achieved. [7] It remained to be seen when the utopians would make their next move.


1. The minutes of the Meetings of the Representatives of the People, which I have been able to consult for the purposes of this book, consist of two volumes of typescript. The first contains one hundred and forty-nine pages, the second one hundred and forty-two. The minutes cover the period 14 November to 31 December 1918. The typescript has never been corrected, and therefore contains a number of clerical errors, but on the other hand these minutes have not been through the hands of editors, and are therefore perfectly faithful records of the meetings in question. The clerical errors are very easily discerned and corrected.

2. The article by Wissell quoted here appeared in the Sozialistischen Monatsheften.

3. The so-called alliance between Ebert and Groener is a much-disputed problem. As witness in the so-called Munich ‘stab-in-the-back-case’, General Groener said in November 1925: ‘The political aim for which Ebert was working and which he discussed with me at the time when the troops were marching in and after the affair with the sailors took place, was firstly the expulsion of the Independents from the provisional government, and secondly the safeguarding of the National Assembly. He requested my help for both, and I gave it to him. Ebert managed the ejection of the USPD as cleverly as it could possibly have been done.’ Facts go to show that Groener’s statement cannot possibly be correct. If Ebert had really wished to force the Independents out of the Reich government he would have had every opportunity of doing so at the soviet congress, when the USPD group left its own representatives in the lurch and refused to enter the new Central Council. It would have been perfectly simple for Ebert, supported by the soviet congress itself, to have insisted upon the resignation of the USPD People’s Representatives. He did not do so. Moreover, the withdrawal of the Independents from the government on 29 December was anything but a triumph for Ebert. The Majority Socialist Representatives of the People remained isolated in the government, forfeiting a great deal of their authority and in a most dangerous situation. Of Ebert’s alleged ‘cleverness’ there is no sign. Undoubtedly General Groener personally made every endeavour to speak the truth in 1925. But he was only able to give a one-sided picture of events which were then seven years old. How unreliable Groener’s testimony was is shown by another of his statements. He said: ‘I was talking to Ebert on the evening of 24 December. He said to me: “What shall we do?” I replied that there were only about one hundred and fifty men left in Berlin; that the High Command was leaving Berlin and going to Wilhelmshöhe. Whereupon Ebert said laughing: “You know, I shall go away now and go to sleep for three days. I need it badly. I am going to stay with friends; I shall disappear utterly from the Chancellor’s palace and go to sleep. I shall also see to it that all the other gentlemen go away for the next few days. Only a porter will be left. If the Liebknecht crowd takes this opportunity to seize the power there will be nobody here. But if nothing is found they will only be beating the air. And then we shall be in a position to set up our government somewhere else in a few days’ time, possibly in Potsdam.” I suggested that he should come to Cassel. But he went off to sleep, and this is the curious thing about the story – Messrs Liebknecht and Company also kept Christmas and did not attempt anything during these days.’ It might be supposed that a statement given with such precision and told so plausibly must be true. Actually it is purely imaginary. The three days during which Ebert is said to have slept over Christmas 1918 are not to be found in the minutes of the meetings of the Representatives of the People. At half-past four in the afternoon of 24 December there was a meeting of the Council of the Representatives of the People. On 26 December at a quarter to eleven in the morning the council met again. On 27 December there was another meeting at 10.45am, and on 28 December meetings went on without intermission until after midnight. The official withdrawal of the Independents took place during the midnight meeting on 28-29 December. According to this, 25 December was the only day on which no meeting of the Representatives of the People took place. Historically it is not in itself of any great importance for how long Ebert slept, but this fact shows the care that is necessary in using Groener’s testimony. Possibly somebody said for a joke in those critical days in December 1918 that it would be best to shut up shop and go to bed. And in General Groener’s mind this joke had become reality seven years later. The reasons for which Groener believed an ‘alliance’ to exist between him and Ebert have been stated in the text. (Groener’s statement is published in Beckmann, Der Dolchstossprozess in München (Munich, 1925), pp 110-11.)

4. Light is thrown upon the attitude of the old Imperial officials to the government of the Representatives of the People by the demeanour of Solf, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Joffe, the former Russian Ambassador in Berlin, had asserted in a wireless message that the USPD had used Bolshevik money in preparing for the German Revolution. Thereupon the following scene occurred. The account is taken verbatim from the minutes of the Council of the Representatives of the People: Cabinet Meeting on 9 December 1918, 10am, Present Ebert, Haase, Barth, Scheidemann, Landsberg, Solf, Nadolni, Kautsky: ‘Violent scene between Solf and Haase. Solf repeats that he refused to shake hands with Haase. Haase calls this behaviour inadmissible. Solf reads Joffe’s wireless message aloud.’ [Lengthy speeches of vindication by Haase and Barth follow; after which the minutes continue.]

Solf: I persist in my refusal to shake hands with Haase. I must act according to my convictions. As long as such a serious accusation hangs over him I refuse to greet him.

Ebert: The Joffe telegram has been published all over the world.

Landsberg: What are you going to do, Haase?

Haase: I shall reply to it at once publicly.

Barth associated himself with this statement.

Ebert: That closes the incident for the time being.

And this sort of thing could happen a month after the victory of the revolution! Obviously it never occurred to any of the Representatives of the People to have Herr Solf arrested then and there. What would have happened in Russia in 1918 if some bourgeois official had behaved in a similar manner to Trotsky, or in France in 1793 if an aristocratic functionary had treated Robespierre like that? In both cases the official would have been instantly brought before the Revolutionary Court.

An extract from the minutes of the Cabinet meeting on 12 December reads: ‘Unofficial discussion about Solf. Unanimous agreement that he must go, but shall remain in office until a successor has been found.’ Nothing further was done against Solf. His successor was Count Brockdorff-Rantzau.

5. A brilliant picture of the reconstitution of the middle-class parties after the revolution is given in the diary of a German National speaker published by Walter Lambach in the appendix to his book Die Herrschaft der Fünfhundert (Hamburg, 1926). The scene takes place at Cuxhaven on 27 November 1918: ‘The hall is full to overflowing with men and women. I begin with an objective criticism of the faults of the old regime and am rewarded by encouraging applause. That was to be expected... Now the helm must be brought round. Now we come to criticism of the new rulers, of the members of the workmen’s and soldiers’ councils who are in the hall. Now we shall see whether the spark catches, whether there is still room for us in Cuxhaven. “The old gang has gone,” I begin after the clapping has ended, in a hard, loud voice. “But I shall prove that those who have seized the power are even worse than they were. We have gone out of the frying-pan into the fire. We have fallen into intolerable slavery.” Breathless silence. The audience evidently expects interruptions from the members of the workmen’s and soldiers’ councils who are adorning the front row wearing red armlets. The revolution is still too young. Fear of machine-guns still paralyses most limbs. But the dreaded sound is not heard. The new God of Revolution does not send down either fire or brimstone. Now or never was the time to burst the bonds of fear, to awaken the old feeling of self-reliance in these people: “But we will not be slaves. We will live as free men. Your tyranny, gentlemen of the workmen’s and soldiers’ councils, will be shattered by our cry for our rights,” I shout passionately. Something seems to snap in the audience. Tremendous applause breaks out. Our thoughts have free rein again. The member of the soldiers’ council who speaks after me is in naval uniform. He does not succeed in putting the audience back into its chains. He is laughed at. Furious indignation of the citizens rises to meet him. Ruthlessly they confront him with the shortcomings of his youthful government, and I am able to crush him completely in my final words.’ Here the crisis is crowded into a single moment. If the member of the soldiers’ council had still possessed the force and the power three weeks after the revolution to have the counter-revolutionary speaker arrested after the first provocative words, and if this had been done all over Germany, then the Nationalist Party could never have been formed. But when it was seen that the ‘God of Revolution’ was defenceless, the middle-class counter-revolution could be organised unhindered.

6. The temper of the government shortly before the assembly of the soviet congress is shown by the following extract from the minutes of the Cabinet meeting on 13 December. (There had again been complaints of the interference of the councils in the administration and the army.)

Ebert: Things cannot go on like this. We are making fools of ourselves before the whole world. We must submit the following motion to the Reich conference [he means the soviet congress]:The conduct of the affairs of the Reich lies exclusively in the hands of the government.’ If this is passed, then a committee of the Reich conference can be given parliamentary authority and hear reports at definite times, as the chief committee of the Reichstag used to in the old days. But a clear-cut delimitation is necessary. The responsibility is ours. The interference with the government on the part of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils that has been occurring all over the place must stop...

Dittmann: ... We must get in touch with the Central Council from the very outset. We do not, after all, wish to be absolute rulers. Let us leave the [Berlin] Executive Council in peace and tell the Central Council what it is we want. In any case the Central Council has more power in the country than the Executive Council. But they must have the right of supervision, more or less, as the Chief Committee used to have it.

Ebert: Nothing whatever has been said against the right of supervision.

Haase: The comparison with the Chief Committee is apt. But neither the Central Council nor any local soldiers’ council must interfere in the affairs of any branch of the administration. On the other hand, the fact that the workmen’s and soldiers’ councils have often acted very satisfactorily as supervisory committees over the local administration must not be overlooked. On the subject of encroachments, let us not forget the encroachments of the officers.

Landsberg: In the case of the officers it was only a few bigoted fellows. In the case of the soviets we are dealing with the organisation of disorder... The comparison between the Executive Council and the Chief Committee is not altogether correct. The Chief Committee is composed of men who have been selected first by the electors and again by their own parliamentary group. Only the best men got into the Chief Committee. The Executive Committee contains numbers of unsuitable persons. Whether that will be any different in the Central Council, is doubtful. Even there the lust for power can do much harm.

Ebert: If we hold together, we can very easily change things. Any objective differences between us must give way to this great task.

[After this Scheidemann indulged in further violent attacks on the councils.]

Haase: If we are agreed upon this, the situation may still be saved. Sense and the lack of it are divided evenly between both parties in the Executive Council.

It is interesting here to see how little the Majority Socialist Representatives of the People understood what was new in the councils, and also the attempts that were made to understand the unpleasant new phenomenon by making totally untenable comparisons with the usages of parliamentary life. The adherents of the USPD had far more fellow-feeling for the councils, but were not in a position to confront the Majority Socialists with any other principle. The strong desire for unity displayed by both sides and especially by Ebert and Haase is also highly characteristic.

7. Light is thrown upon the impotence of the government after the seizure of the Vorwärts by the following minute: Cabinet meeting on 26 December, 10.45am. Present: Ebert, Dittmann, Haase, Barth, Scheidemann and in addition Heller and Schäfer of the Central Council. The seizure of the Vorwärts: Ebert and Heller give a brief summary of the events. Scheidemann ascertains that Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were in the Vorwärts offices.

Ebert: We must demand on behalf of our party that the Vorwärts is handed over to us unreservedly. We ourselves have no means to compel it. Fischer [Military Governor of Berlin, successor to Wels] will undertake nothing without the order of the whole Cabinet.

Haase: You know very well that the revolutionary Obleute turned against us [that is, against the USPD] in the Red Flag.

Dittmann: It must first be ascertained whether Eichhorn cannot get rid of the people. Only if he says that he cannot do so does it become a matter for the Military Governor.

Scheidemann: Yes, but if the army is brought into it, there will be bloodshed, and then you will be bloodhounds too.

Haase: We must speak to Eichhorn first.

After holding a consultation on the telephone, Haase continues: ‘The Revolutionary Obleute immediately resolved that the Vorwärts must be evacuated. It was a mistake to say that they occasioned the occupation. If there should be any difficulty, Däumig would by virtue of his authority himself demand the evacuation of the Vorwärts. If even that should not be sufficient, the sailors have agreed to help in liberating the Vorwärts.’

The humour of the situation lay in the fact that the People’s Naval Division, the victor of the Christmas Eve affair, was now appearing as the last safety anchor of the government. So broken was the power of the Representatives of the People!