A History of the German Republic, Arthur Rosenberg 1936

Chapter IV: The National Assembly at Weimar

The National Assembly that was to vote the constitution of the German republic and to turn the revolution into new channels was elected on 19 January 1919. Of the Socialist parties, the SPD and USPD took part in the elections, while the Communists, acting on the resolution passed at the party conference in Berlin, refused their participation. The democratic and middle-class masses were represented by the Centre as well as by the German Democratic Party, which had taken the place of the former Progressives. The various conservative groups had united to form the German National People’s Party, and the industrial right wing of the former National Liberals reappeared as the German People’s Party.

The election results still reflected public opinion as it was in November and December 1918. Those who sympathised with the revolution and the republic, the Socialist and democratic parties, achieved a great success. The Majority Socialists polled eleven and a half million votes, and the Independents two million three hundred thousand. Nearly fourteen million Socialist votes were recorded out of a total of thirty millions. Thus the Socialist vote represented 45 per cent of the electorate. The Centre polled six million votes, the Democrats five and a half million. On the other hand, the Nationalists and the People’s Party together polled only four and a half million votes, or 15 per cent of the electorate. Although both parties of the right had formulated their programmes very carefully to accord with the new political situation, and were desirous of coming to an agreement with the parliamentary democracy, they were completely submerged in the elections.

The revolution was approved by 85 per cent of the electorate notwithstanding individual differences of opinion on the merits of the various party programmes.

The National Assembly was summoned to meet in Weimar. The government decided upon this venue in order to liberate the parliament of the Reich temporarily from the influence of the radical working classes in Berlin who had brought serious pressure to bear upon the Congress of Councils in December. Moreover, it was intended that Weimar should be a symbol of the new Germany whose ideal was no longer to be Potsdam militarism, but the traditions of Goethe and Schiller.

History enjoys discrediting arbitrarily chosen symbols. The republic sought to banish Potsdam militarism. When, however, the National Assembly met in Weimar at the beginning of February, the republic had created a new form of militarism in the Free Corps, which oppressed the working classes even more heavily than the old Imperial militarism had done. The formation of a new volunteer army led by Imperial officers created a political power in Germany which was in reality opposed to the spirit of the National Assembly. The test of the National Assembly was to come over its attitude to military questions.

Since the withdrawal of the USPD from the Reich government, the Cabinet had been composed of Majority Socialists alone. The Social Democrats now sought for someone to share with them the load of responsibility which they could not support themselves. The first suggestion for the formation of a coalition was addressed by the Majority Socialists to the USPD. On 5 February, the Social Democratic group in the Reichstag passed the following resolution:

That the Independent Socialist Party be asked to reply to the question whether it is prepared to enter the government on the understanding that it accepts parliamentary democracy, that is to say, a form of government which is determined in every respect by the will of the majority of the people, and which, especially, precludes any form of coup d'état.

It redounds to the credit of the SPD that it adopted this resolution despite all the attacks to which it had been exposed during the past few weeks on the part of the USPD. The sole condition made by the SPD for cooperation – to respect the wishes of the majority of the people, and to forswear any attempt at a coup d'état – was not unreasonable. If it had proved possible to restore cooperation between the two Socialist Parties at this moment, the threatened hegemony of the army might have been averted, and the alienation of the socialist working classes from the republic might have been avoided.

The USPD replied to this request without delay on 6 February. Its reply was highly characteristic:

There can be no question of the USPD entering the government until the present tyranny has been abolished, and until all the members of the government not only make profession of their intention to secure the democratic and socialist achievements of the revolution against the middle classes and against a military autocracy, but also give practical proof of their determination to give effect to these professions.

The danger threatening the republic and the socialist working class was very clearly shown in the USPD’s declaration. But the struggle to avert that danger would have been made much easier if the two Socialist Parties could once again have presented a united front. Since the events of January, however, the wing of the USPD led by Däumig was still more unwilling to collaborate with the Majority Socialists, while Haase’s and Dittmann’s supporters did not wish to do anything to disturb afresh the precarious balance in the unity of the USPD.

After the failure of their attempt to regain the cooperation of the USPD, the Majority Socialists turned to the middle-class central parties. The SPD suggested to the Centre and the Democrats that they should coalesce on three conditions – firstly, unreserved recognition of the republican constitution; secondly, a financial policy involving severe burdens upon private property of all kinds; and thirdly, a far-reaching social policy with nationalisation of all suitable industries. The two central middle-class parties accepted the Social-Democratic conditions. It is noteworthy that not even the demand for nationalisation met with any great opposition. The Christian trade unions, who now determined the views of the Centre, were not inclined to fight for the employers, nor had the central strata of the middle classes – clerks, officials, intellectuals, etc – any particular feeling for the great capitalists. The conviction that extensive nationalisation was necessary had come to be widely held in Germany, and was very popular. The party leaders and deputies of the Centre as of the Democrats were prepared to respond to this demand on the part of the nation, and it is obvious on careful consideration that the theory that the coalition of the Social Democrats with the middle-class parties sealed the doom of the German Revolution is not tenable.

When the National Assembly first came into being, the Social Democrats had the leadership entirely in their own hands. Social Democracy could have carried any measure through parliament if it was supported by the momentum of the revolutionary masses and of the armed forces. In this connexion the example given above of the Bavarian Diet in February and March 1919 is very instructive. The percentage of Socialists in the Bavarian Diet was about the same as in the German National Assembly. They could have enforced their will in Weimar just as they did in Munich. The revolutionary aims remained unattainable, not on account of the opposition of the Centre and Democrats, but because the momentum of the SPD slackened, and because the civil war during the first half of 1919 completely altered the military and political balance of power.

The National Assembly first agreed upon a provisional emergency constitution. On 11 February, Ebert was elected as provisional President of the Republic. On 12 February the new Reich government was formed with Scheidemann as Chancellor. The other three Majority Socialists also remained in office – Landsberg as Reich Minister of Justice; Noske as Reichswehr Minister (the official name given by the Republic to the army was now ‘Reichswehr’ – state defence); and Wissell as Reich Minister for National Economy. In addition, there were three other Majority Socialist members of the Cabinet – Bauer, David and Robert Schmidt. The Centre provided three ministers, including Erzberger; the Democrats also provided three, including Preuss. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Count Brockdorff-Rantzau, was regarded as being bourgeois in sympathy but politically independent. There were therefore seven Social Democrats and seven middle-class ministers in the Cabinet. Since the Chancellor was a Social Democrat, and, moreover, the Ministries of Defence, of National Economy, of Food and of Social Welfare were under Social Democratic control, the German republic appeared to be assured of Socialist leadership.

In the course of the great English and French Revolutions, parliamentary institutions spontaneously developed the energy with which the revolution was carried on and vacillating sections of the populace were won over to their side. In England the Long Parliament worked in this spirit, and in France the Convention. But the Weimar National Assembly was no Convention. Its level was that of the German Reichstag of pre-revolutionary days – that is to say, it was composed of decent, honest, hard-working men altogether lacking in revolutionary fervour. True revolutionaries would, above all, have faced the danger that threatened from the army. The National Assembly might have declared in the manner of the Convention that the republic was in danger. It might have called all socialists and republicans to arms to save their country. A general armament of the people would have rendered the Free Corps harmless, would have nipped in the bud any danger of individual coups, would have secured the eastern frontier against the Poles, and might even possibly have strengthened the position of Germany in face of the Entente at the peace negotiations. No such armament of the people took place, for it would have accorded ill with the ideal of ‘Law and Order’, which the men in power revered above all else.

In the new Reich government’s declaration of policy is a section concerning military policy. It deserves reproduction in full:

The creation of a national army based upon democratic principles for the protection of the Fatherland, with a considerable reduction of the period of service. Every unit to elect a committee to represent its views in matters concerning the commissariat (canteen), furlough, accommodation and complaints. The demobilisation of all soldiers at present in barracks, including the 1899 class. The abolition both of military institutions created solely for the purpose of prosecuting the war and of those belonging to the peacetime strength of the army that may now be regarded as superfluous. A scheme of pensions for former regular officers and NCOs. Officers elected by the soldiers to be confirmed in their rank for the time being in so far as they have proved themselves fit.

The military policy is obviously lacking in any basic principle. The old Imperial army is indeed to be disbanded. Nevertheless there is no indication of any clearly defined attitude towards the new army of the Free Corps, apart from the committees set up to control the canteens. The National Assembly subsequently comforted itself by supposing that the Free Corps were only a ‘temporary phenomenon’.

The National Assembly was equally little capable of dealing with the problem confronting it in the councils. Another part of the government’s declaration of policy runs:

Freedom of association is to be secured for everyone in the constitution. Conditions of wages and labour are to be settled between the employers’ organisations and those of the workmen and other employees. Representatives of the employees shall supervise their execution. Labour laws must be adjusted to the new conditions.

Thus it was only proposed to extend the powers of the traditional workers’ committees entrusted with the supervision of labour conditions. There were to be no workers’ councils whose functions should be economic or political. Nevertheless the great wave of unrest that swept through Germany in the course of February and March showed that considerable sections of the German proletariat were not prepared to allow the councils to lapse. Thus the left wing of the Social Democrats temporarily won the upper hand in the question of the councils. On 22 and 23 March a joint conference took place in Weimar between the Social Democratic Party Committee and other leading party officials and the party representatives in the Reichstag. The following resolution was passed:

Legally regulated representation of the workers shall be created to contribute towards the realisation of nationalisation, to inspect socialist enterprises, and to supervise production and distribution in the economic life of the nation. In a law to this effect that shall be passed as soon as possible, provision must be made for the election of industrial, workmen’s and employees’ councils, whose tasks must be defined, and which will be expected to collaborate on an equal footing in the regulation of labour conditions as a whole. Further, provision must be made for District Labour Councils and a Reich Labour Council, which in conjunction with the representatives of all other producers, shall give their opinion as experts before the promulgation of any law concerning economic or social questions, and may themselves suggest that such laws should be passed. The provisions in question are to be included in the constitution of the German republic.

It is noteworthy that the SPD was capable of passing such a resolution in favour of the councils. The party also fulfilled its promise and duly inserted an appropriate paragraph in the constitution concerning the role and the duties of the councils. Nevertheless, when transformed into actual fact, the proposals proved to be valueless. The industrial councils which were later introduced by a Reich law were the same old workers’ committees in a new guise. In reality, their functions were confined to social welfare.

A provisional Reich Economic Council composed of the representatives of the different classes of employment was also set up. It vegetated pleasantly, and only occasionally became active in giving expert opinions on customs questions, etc. No German worker ever regarded the provisional Reich Economic Council as a realisation of the revolutionary ideal. No attempt was ever made methodically to build up from below a system of workers’ and economic councils.

It is possible that in March 1919 the influential men in the SPD only acquiesced half-heartedly in the soviet ideal. With the decrease of the power of German socialism and of the working classes, it no longer proved possible to give the councils an important position in German political and economic life. Thus the greatest ideal of the German Revolution never achieved realisation.

Ever since 9 November the SPD had advocated nationalisation in principle. But it had never proved possible to define precisely what nationalisation was really intended to be. Immediate expropriation of mines and other branches of heavy industry was regarded as impracticable. Meanwhile Wissell, the Reich Minister for Economy, was a passionate believer in planned economy. In this manner he proposed to increase the power of the state and of the community in economic life, and to give socialism its opportunity to play an active part. The first beginnings of planned economic control were to be seen in the laws passed by the National Assembly regulating the coal and potassium industries. A Reich Coal Council and a Reich Potash Council, composed of representatives of employers, employees and consumers, were set up and placed under state supervision. The councils were to assume the management of these industries. Both were at first no more than frameworks, and it remained to be seen how these frameworks would be filled out in practice.

At the party conference of the SPD at Weimar in June, Wissell had explained his proposals for the adoption of planned economy as a path to socialism in a brilliant speech delivered amidst the liveliest applause. But even at this conference it was obvious that the conservatively-minded party leaders were not in sympathy with his ideas. An increasing opposition to the Reich Minister for Economy manifested itself. On 12 July Wissell resigned, and was succeeded by Robert Schmidt, an outspoken opponent of planned economy. With the fall of Wissell the attempt to carry the ideal of socialisation to victory in Germany had failed. Old-style private capitalism once more obtained the upper hand. The Reich Coal and Potash Councils became decorative figureheads, and only made their existence unpleasantly felt by raising prices.

The National Assembly thus failed to achieve constructive results alike in military matters, the councils and socialisation. Its positive achievement was the Reich constitution, which was finally passed on 31 July 1919 after much laborious work. It is necessary to recall the situation in Germany that summer, when socialist and revolutionary influence was steadily decreasing and the power of the army and of capitalism was steadily increasing, in order to understand that the Weimar Constitution was in fact a revolutionary achievement. For the National Assembly with all its shortcomings was in the last resort a product of the first months of the revolution. It was controlled by the majority block of the definitely democratic parties. These parties had meanwhile lost a great part of their adherents throughout the country. But in the National Assembly they were still a power, and they fashioned the constitution according to their principles. The fate of the Weimar Constitution of 1919 was very similar to that of the Reich constitution of 1849. The National Assembly which met in Saint Paul’s Church at Frankfurt was reactionary compared with the revolution of 1848. But in those days the revolutionary wave receded so fast that the National Assembly in drafting the Reich constitution in 1849 found itself in an advanced radical position in comparison with actual developments in Germany.

The Weimar Constitution was largely the work of the Democrat Preuss. It is animated by the principle of parliamentary democracy. The Reichstag, elected by the whole nation, is the highest authority. It holds the legislative power and can at any time overthrow the government by a vote of no-confidence. Beside the Reichstag is the Reichsrat representing the individual states. It possesses only the power of delayed veto upon the legislation enacted by the Reichstag. If on receiving back its original measure from the Reichsrat the Reichstag passes it again with a two-thirds majority, the objection of the Reichsrat is thereby quashed and the will of the Reichstag receives the force of law.

According to the Weimar Constitution the parliamentary principle was to be supplemented by two other principles; that of direct appeal to the nation; and that of a system of occupational councils. As has been stated above, the clauses in the constitution regulating the system of councils remained merely paper provisions. Nevertheless they are an integral part of the Weimar legislative ideology. If the development of the German republic had been along more favourable lines, they might have been realised in the spirit of the constitution.

The direct appeal to the people was to be resorted to immediately in the election of a President of the Reich. In the summer of 1919 there was nevertheless some hesitation in holding a plebiscite for or against Ebert because an electoral struggle would still further arouse political passions. The Reich President who had been elected by the Reichstag therefore remained in office until his death with the consent of all the political parties. According to the constitution the President nominates the Chancellor, but the Chancellor can only hold office if he possesses the confidence of the Reichstag. This provision was sufficient to assure the predominance of the Reichstag over the President until the constitution ceased to remain in force, that is, until Brüning’s chancellorship. If any insuperable difference of opinion arose between the President and the Reichstag, it was to be referred to the nation either in the form of a plebiscite upon the proposed measure or by dissolving the Reichstag and holding new elections.

There was no room in the Weimar Constitution for a presidential dictatorship. For the much-quoted Article 48 properly interpreted only gives the President power to restore order by decrees in case of sudden disturbances. Such emergency decrees are to be rescinded immediately upon demand by the Reichstag. The interpretation of Article 48 to authorise the promulgation by the President of emergency decrees as a substitute for normal legislation goes beyond the meaning and intention of the Weimar Constitution. The victory of a dictatorship ruling by emergency decrees under Brüning marks the end of the Weimar Republic. Hence emergency decrees as promulgated under Brüning cannot be used as evidence in criticising the original Weimar Constitution.

Apart from the election of the Reich President, direct cooperation in legislation of all those entitled to vote was to be aimed at by means of popular referenda and plebiscites. This was a true and most fertile democratic conception. It was, it is true, afterwards found that in practice the method of holding a plebiscite under the Weimar Constitution was much too complicated. Actually, it was hardly possible for a plebiscite held according to the conditions laid down in the constitution to be successful. Nevertheless, if the German constitution had undergone progressive evolution, these technical difficulties could have been eliminated and the basic principle of the legislators could have been restored.

Naturally the constitution was not able to eliminate the difficulties which from the very beginning had beset German revolutionary development. The constitution left untouched the individual states; it preserved the traditional rights of officialdom; and it did not interfere with the irremovability of judges. It did not define clearly either the relations of the new republic to the former ruling houses in pecuniary matters and the possession of property, or the relations between church and state. Nevertheless, the constitution did leave the way open for developments in the future. It permitted of the extension of the council system as it did of the progress of nationalisation. Moreover, the constitution made reasonable provision for its own future development. The predominance of the army in the German republic was not a result of the Weimar Constitution, but of a development which occurred outside the law.

Many Germans after 1919 were only too ready to ascribe all the misfortunes that happened under the republic to the Weimar Constitution and to democracy. Impartial historical research is able to refute the greater part of these accusations. For the constitution as it came into existence in the summer of 1919 was a tool which the German people might have used in a progressive manner for the promotion of democracy and socialism. The fact that events developed along different lines was not the fault of the constitution. And the basic mistake made by the legislators themselves does not lie in their having composed these particular paragraphs, but in their being unable to reconcile their paragraphs with conditions of everyday life.

In addition to drafting the constitution the main task of the National Assembly was the conclusion of peace. After the loss of the war the foreign policy of the German republic was to a large extent dictated by necessity. The victorious powers, and especially the middle-class democracies in France, England and America, were determined to destroy utterly Germany’s position as a world power and the so-called militarism of Imperial Germany. Germany was to lose its colonies, to return Alsace-Lorraine to France, to be disarmed as completely as possible, and to be burdened with the heaviest possible reparation obligations. The union of Germany and Austria was not to be permitted, and Germany was to be rendered powerless in eastern Europe by the creation of the new states of Poland and Czechoslovakia. The conditions of peace as formulated by the Allied and associated powers were unbearably severe. Nevertheless Germany had no choice in 1919 but to accept the treaty.

Since Germany was not in a position in 1919 to go on fighting, it was obliged to sign the peace in order at least to gain a breathing-space. Lenin acted with perfect logic in 1918 when he advocated the signature of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In 1919 and 1920 Lenin was equally convinced that in the prevailing conditions even a German socialist labour government would have been obliged to sign the Treaty of Versailles. The opposition offered by the KPD to the signing of the treaty met with Lenin’s marked disapproval.

The majority in the National Assembly ultimately accepted the inevitable and took the only proper action. The SPD and the Centre, as well as the USPD, were strongly convinced that it was absolutely necessary to accept the peace treaty despite objections in detail. The power of the army had meanwhile grown to be so great in Germany that the government dared not sign the treaty without its consent. Certain of the generals refused in any circumstances to agree to the ‘humiliation’ of Versailles. Nevertheless, General Groener realised that the resumption of hostilities would be fatal not only to Germany as a whole, but also to the corps of officers in particular. Hence Groener used the paramount influence of the High Command to secure acceptance of the peace conditions, and was largely responsible for the signing of the treaty. After the conclusion of peace the High Command under Hindenburg and Groener ceased to exist. Its disappearance removed the main link between the government and the army, and the troops were now virtually without a leader, for the civilian Reichswehr Minister had no real authority. The consequences of this state of affairs materialised in the Kapp Putsch.

Meanwhile the Chancellor, Scheidemann, was so strongly opposed to the signing of the treaty that he handed in his resignation on 20 June. A new coalition was formed that at first consisted only of Social Democrats and the Centre. The Democrats did not return to the government until several months later. Landsberg left the government with Scheidemann. Scheidemann’s resignation was not only due to differences over the question of peace, but also to the widespread conviction that both his domestic and his foreign policy had suffered shipwreck. Scheidemann never again held office.

The Majority Socialist Bauer became Chancellor. Of the well-known Social Democratic leaders, Noske, David and Hermann Müller were in the Cabinet, and also Wissell for a few weeks. The most important Centre minister was Erzberger, who very soon became the real leader of the Cabinet owing to his great energy and his oratorical gifts. The fact that the Bauer Cabinet was already taking its cue from a bourgeois minister is significant of the decline of Social-Democratic influence in the latter months of the year. The old SPD leaders were politically worn out and the party failed to produce new men to take their place. The governance of the German republic was therefore transferred temporarily to middle-class democrats from the ranks of the Centre, to men like Erzberger, Wirth and Fehrenbach, until in 1923 there began the undisguised reign of capital under Cuno.

On 22 June the National Assembly assented to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. This is not the place in which to analyse the whole complex of the treaty and its involved application. As things were in Germany at the time, the loss of the colonies and of Alsace-Lorraine had to be submitted to. The cession, though painful, of Northern Schleswig and of Eupen-Malmedy, which followed as a result of plebiscites, affected no vital German interests. The new territorial arrangements in the east, however, were simply intolerable, involving as they did the severance of the German territories of Danzig and Memel, the interposition of the Polish Corridor reaching to the sea and cutting off East Prussia from the Reich, and the later dismemberment of Upper Silesia as the result of a plebiscite. A dangerous situation was created by the articles of the treaty ordaining an Allied military occupation of the left bank of the Rhine for many years. For it was very questionable whether the foreign troops would ever evacuate the Rhineland, and whether separatist ideas would not meanwhile arise on the left bank of the Rhine. Finally, the reparation demands of the Allies were absolutely impossible of fulfilment. Any attempt to carry them out must involve the utter economic ruin of Germany, while Germany’s incapacity to make the required payments must continually provide fresh occasion for sanctions on the part of the victors.

It was impossible to alter these conditions at the moment. But it was necessary for the statesmen of the German republic to make sure what the future course of their foreign policy was to be. It would obviously be exceedingly difficult for Germany to achieve any success in this situation, but at all events it was essential to know what were the political aims that could or could not be pursued in foreign policy. The republican government did not, however, succeed in evolving any such clear-cut foreign policy. Hence not only did success not attend its efforts in any direction, but in addition it allowed itself to become involved in a hopeless Baltic adventure.

At the Peace Conference in Paris the three leading powers of the Entente – America, England and France – were united in principle as to the treatment of Germany. Nevertheless the interests of the three powers in German affairs were different. For America European affairs were only of secondary importance. After Woodrow Wilson’s retirement, the dissociation of America from European politics became increasingly marked. England is a European power, but its interests are bound up with those of the British Empire which extends over five continents. France also possesses a large colonial empire, but the vital interests of France are dependent upon European, indeed Central European, events. In these circumstances France was the power within the Entente with which it was primarily essential for Germany to come to terms. If an understanding could be reached with France, the Anglo-Saxon powers could not become dangerous to Germany. On the other hand, an understanding with the Anglo-Saxon powers would not have helped Germany in the least. Neither America nor England would have allowed itself to be placed in a situation which would have brought it into open enmity with France for the sake of Germany. If a Franco-German agreement could be achieved, neither reparations nor problems arising out of her eastern frontier would provide serious difficulties for Germany. If France had been convinced that it must cooperate with Germany, reparations would have had to be fixed at a figure that did not endanger the vitality of German economic life; while Poland would be powerless in a conflict with Germany if it were not backed by France.

In 1919 and the following years the way to a Franco-German understanding was made harder by innumerable difficulties both material and psychological. Nevertheless an attempt should have been made to pursue it. Instead, German foreign policy was preoccupied with the English illusion. The Anglo-Saxon illusion is a phenomenon dating from the Bethmann-Hollweg period. Before the World War, leading German politicians had gradually become anxious at the growing isolation of Germany. Bethmann-Hollweg and his advisers persuaded themselves that even if the worst came to the worst England would not fight against Germany. English statesmen had no hand in creating this illusion. They had emphasised over and over again that, in event of a German attack on France and Russia, England could not hold aloof. Nevertheless, up till within a very few days of the outbreak of war, Bethmann-Hollweg clung to the straw of British neutrality.

The illusion persisted during the World War. The leading men in England set forth their war aims with the greatest precision. Their chief aim was the destruction of German imperialism and of German militarism. There were, however, many politicians in Germany who still believed that England was to be persuaded to a tolerable compromise with Germany. While in Germany, supporters of the so-called ‘victorious peace’ proposed holding England in check by means of submarines and the fortification of the Belgian coast, advocates of peace by mutual understanding were opposed to all methods of warfare and all war-aims that would inflict serious injury upon England. The advocates of a victorious peace were mostly to be found in the parties of the right, while the left parties demanded peace by mutual understanding. The latter, it is true, only wished for a sincere understanding with England and America, while they regarded the overthrow and dismemberment of Russia, and considerable conquests in the east on the Berlin-Baghdad line as quite admissible.

When the fortunes of war turned against Germany in 1918, the advocates of peace by compromise acquired the ascendancy; and Bethmann-Hollweg’s traditional foreign policy was revived. It was hoped that England and Woodrow Wilson would help the Germans to a tolerable peace. The Anglo-Saxons might even allow Germany to keep its predominance over a dismembered Russia by giving their sanction to the policy of Brest-Litovsk. Germany would of course have to undertake in return to act as the ‘protector of European civilisation’ against Bolshevism.

In the light of these opinions it is understandable why Prince Max of Baden’s government accepted Woodrow Wilson’s conditions and asked the Western powers for an armistice, but at the same time left the German troops in the occupied eastern districts and made no effective attempt to liquidate the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Thus the first democratic government of Germany incurred the enmity of Soviet Russia. The Soviet government supported the efforts of the German working classes to put a revolutionary end to Prince Max of Baden’s government. The intervention of the Russian embassy in German internal politics could not be concealed, and therefore shortly before the November Revolution diplomatic relations between Germany and Russia were broken off.

The government of the Representatives of the People carried on its foreign policy along the lines of that of Prince Max of Baden. Although a Russo-German understanding was absolutely essential, the conflict with Russia continued. It would of course have been madness on Germany’s part to have planned to resume hostilities with the Entente in alliance with Soviet Russia. A political bond between Germany and Russia might nevertheless have exercised a beneficial effect upon the negotiations with the Entente and might have strengthened Germany’s international position. An understanding with Russia would have been easy to achieve if Germany had quickly evacuated the occupied territory in the east and had come to an agreement with the Soviet government upon the basis of mutual non-intervention in internal affairs. But Germany did not come to such a decision. And therefore the Soviet government continued to make life difficult for the German Representatives of the People by encouraging Spartacist demonstrations.

At the end of the war the German troops were obliged to evacuate the Ukraine and Poland. The situation was, however, different in the Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The great landowners in the Baltic states, who were of German origin, had welcomed the German invaders. In the imminent event of the separation of these states from Russia, the German Baltic landowners hoped to rule these countries with the help of Germany. After the November Revolution the German ruling class in the Baltic states feared the approach of Bolshevism.

In addition, however, to the friends of Soviet Russia and the German nobility there was yet a third party in the Baltic states – that of the native peasantry and middle classes. They wanted the establishment of national middle-class democratic states. The Entente sympathised with their aspirations and thought it would be a good plan to set up independent democratic republics in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Towards the turn of the year 1918-19 there was a singularly united front against Bolshevism along the Baltic coast. The nationalist peasants and artisans marched against the Bolshevists side by side with the German aristocracy. The Entente gave its blessing to the movement. In all parts the demand arose for the retention of the German troops in the Baltic states in order for the time being to act as frontier guards against the Red Army. Although the German army was melting away here, as in other parts, the Baltic states became the goal of more and more bands of German volunteers who fought there against Bolshevism with the assent of the local governments and of the Entente. [1]

This development was altogether contrary to Germany’s general interests. In the first place, Germany might have been involved in open warfare with Russia on behalf of the Baltic states at the very time when Russia’s friendship was urgently necessary. Further, it was a fantastic illusion to suppose that the Entente, while removing Danzig and Posen from Germany, would permit the presence in Riga and Reval of a German army and of governments dependent upon Germany. Even if for the moment the German volunteers were needed as cannon fodder against Bolshevism, the time was bound to come when the servant had finished his work and would be dismissed. It was impossible to hope for permanent harmony between the German landowners and the Latvian peasants. The time would come when the native democrats of the Baltic states would turn against the German aristocracy and its military allies. Finally, it was quite possible that serious internal danger to the German republic might develop in the Baltic states. For the German volunteers in those states, who were not officially serving Germany, were much less dependent upon their own republican government even than their comrades in the Reich. The Baltic states became the headquarters and rallying-place of an undisguised military counter-revolution.

For all these reasons the Republican government should have brought the Baltic adventure to an end as quickly as possible. The Communists, the USPD, and the opposition Majority Socialists estimated the danger emanating from the Baltic at its true worth, and criticised the government’s eastern policy most severely. The attitude of the government itself and of the official SPD remained vacillating and vague. It is true that the Ministers gave continual assurances in their official declarations that they had no intention of either going to war with Russia or of interfering in the internal conditions of Estonia and Latvia. They avowed that any German troops which still remained in the Baltic states would be withdrawn from these countries with all possible speed.

At the same time, powerful sections of the German army and of German diplomacy looked at the Baltic question with different eyes. They hoped to make this an opportunity for maintaining at least a part of the German conquests in the east, of coming to an agreement with England on the basis of a joint struggle against Bolshevism, and thus of changing Germany’s whole course in foreign policy. German volunteers poured into the Baltic states because the local governments promised them land for settlement in return for their aid against Bolshevism. A few German Social Democrats like Winnig, the Reich Commissar in the Baltic States, openly supported the Baltic policy.

The intervention of the Reich government was made more difficult by the fact that the German troops in the Baltic states theoretically entered foreign service. They were no longer part of the German army, but were ostensibly serving some Latvian shadow government that owed its existence to German machine-guns, or taking part in some Russian monarchist venture for restoring Tsarism with the Baltic states as its base. The German government gave assurances that it had no control over these – officially foreign – bodies of troops. Nonetheless, war material, food-stuffs, money and reinforcements were continually sent from Germany to the Baltic states. The Reich government was not strong enough to call a halt to the adventure.

The situation became critical towards the end of the year. The Soviet government labouring under great difficulties at home was forced to abandon its attacks upon the border states. Hence the Estonians and Letts no longer needed their inconvenient German helpers, and gave them their marching orders. Sanguinary conflicts occurred between the Letts and Estonians and the German Free Corps who refused to evacuate the country. The Entente intervened and demanded under threats of an ultimatum that the German troops should leave the Baltic states. No resistance was possible to this demand and the Free Corps returned home. These corps were the shock troops of counter-revolution who had started on their march from Riga to Berlin. The German republican government found that it could not yet exorcise the spirits it had itself conjured up.

Thus Germany’s Baltic policy ended in total failure. The illusion that England would conclude some form of alliance with Germany had been dispelled. England demanded Germany’s acceptance of the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles with the same firmness as France and the other Entente powers. The policy which had been pursued in 1919, both officially and semi-officially – to represent France as the real enemy, and to make demonstrative overtures of friendliness to the Anglo-Saxon powers – was useless. It did not win over the Anglo-Saxon powers. It destroyed any possibility of a Franco-German agreement and therewith any prospects of success that might have attended German foreign policy.

Within Social Democracy it was the opposition group about the Sozialistischen Monatshefte who above all advocated an understanding with France and fought against the ‘English illusion’. This so-called continental policy did not by any means require that Germany should take up a hostile attitude to England because such an attitude would have been rank folly. All that it did was to combat the idea fixed in the minds of influential German politicians, namely, the belief that England’s policy would be antagonistic to France and promote the revival of Germany as a great power. The official SPD, on the other hand, unconditionally rejected this continental policy. The Independents and the Communists demanded that Germany should come to an agreement with Soviet Russia: a demand which was perfectly reasonable. The Reich government did indeed continually profess its desire to live in peace and harmony with all nations, and was thus faithful to the traditional pacifist tendency of Social Democracy. Nevertheless, German policy only succeeded in completely alienating Russia and France without at the same time winning the friendship of the Anglo-Saxon powers.


1. Volkmann gives some information regarding the background to the Baltic venture (EO Volkmann, Revolution über Deutschland (Oldenburg, 1930), p 238, from a conversation between Ebert and Groener in January, 1919). ‘Even if there had been no idea of making conquests in Russia, replied Groener, it was nevertheless of vital interest to Germany to keep the Bolshevists at a reasonable distance from her frontiers. For this reason the Field Marshal (Hindenburg) and he, he continued, had always advocated the longest possible delay in evacuating the states on the Russian border, and for the same reason they still considered the resumption of a limited offensive in Courland to be necessary. A sort of vacuum must be created beyond East Prussia. On 24 April, a discussion took place in the Cabinet as to what was to be done in the east. Groener announced that the goal that had been set – to erect a secure barrier beyond the German frontier on the shortest line against the Bolshevists – had been achieved. The danger of an immediate attack, he continued, was the less at that time because the Bolshevist armies were fully occupied in resisting the attacks of the White Guards under Admiral Kolchak and General Denikin. An end might even be put to the Soviet regime if an Entente army were to invade Russia from the west with the German troops... The Cabinet arrived at the conclusion that the existing frontiers in the east were sufficiently secured, and that no offensive was intended either against the Poles or in Courland.’ The conclusions of the government were correct. But the generals and the amateur politicians did not allow their plans to be disturbed on that account.