The Weimar Republic experienced severe problems from its start. Ebert, the first head of the WeimarRepublic, and his government were in a very difficult position. Those on the left – communists and the like – had no respect for the government and the success of Lenin in Russia had boosted their self-belief. Those on the right – former soldiers still bitter about the Armistice and the defeat in the war – also had no respect for the government as it had ‘betrayed’ them. Royalists, who wanted the Kaiser back had no respect for the government as it had been the Social Democrats who had told the Kaiser to abdicate. On top of this, the civilian population was still suffering from the effects of the war. In many senses, Ebert was isolated………yet he was head of Weimar Germany’s government. The most obvious symbol of his weakness was the fact that his control over Berlin – the nation’s capital – was very weak, yet he led the government.
1918 to 1919 saw take place what has frequently been called the “German Revolution”. Attempts to overthrow that government came from both the left and the right.
The Spartacists, German communists named after the slave who led a rebellion against the Romans, challenged Ebert’s government, as did the right wing Free Corps (Freikorps) who were nationalists and usually former soldiers angered at what they saw as the government’s betrayal of the German Army in 1918.
Free Corps men on the march
To gain public support, on November 12th, 1918, Ebert issued “To the German People”. This was a statement of what he wanted to introduce for Germans. He promised freedom of religion, freedom of speech, an end to censorship, a house building programme and an 8 hour day for the workers.
The Spartacists wanted Germany to be run by workers councils similar to what they thought was happening in Lenin’s Russia. The Spartacists had the support of sailors who had not been paid. On December 23rd, 1918, 1000 sailors broke into the government’s headquarters and held Ebert captive. They demanded their owed pay and an increase in their wages. Government soldiers did not attack fellow military men and Ebert had to give in. In the case of the sailors, force had worked. This inspired the Spartacists, who renamed themselves the German Communist Party on December 30th, 1918. They announced their desire for a full-scale communist take over of Germany. They were lead by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
The Spartacists defending a position in Berlin
On January 6th, 1919, the German Communists started their take over attempt. By this time, the government had found an unlikely ally in the Free Corps. These right-wing nationalists hated communists more than Ebert’s Social Democrats and agreed to help Ebert put down the revolt by the communists. By January 15th, the Free Corps had crushed the communists and murdered Luxemburg and Liebknecht. In this sense, there was no “German Revolution” in that the German Communists had tried to overthrow the government but failed miserably.
However, the Free Corps had seen how Ebert was reliant on their power to overthrow challenges to his authority. It was apparent that Ebert needed them more than they needed him. Two men were arrested over the murders of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. One – Vogel – was charged with failing to report a death and illegally disposing of a Liebknecht’s body. He was never imprisoned. The other man – Runge – who had clubbed Luxemburg with a rifle butt, served just a few months in prison for “attempted manslaughter”. Even the legal system seemed to favour the right wing element of politics. By not severely prosecuting these men, the government appeared to be giving support to their use of violence. In this sense, it also appeared to be supporting the Free Corps even if it was reasonably obvious that the Free Corps had no love of Ebert’s government.
Immediately after this event, Ebert called a general election in which the Social Democrats won even more power in the Reichstag. To escape the chaos of Berlin, the parliament moved to Weimar.
On February 11th, 1919, the new parliament elected Ebert as president on the new German Republic. Ebert’s problems did not end with the crushing of the Spartacists.
In March 1919, what was left of the German Communists attempted another takeover. The Free Corps was called in to crush them and within a few days had killed over 1000 people. Ebert had ordered that anybody seen carrying a weapon was to be shot dead. The Free Corps had once again saved the government and restored order.
Ebert’s next problem was in southern Germany in the state of Bavaria. As early as November 1918, Independent Socialists had set up a republic in Bavaria. It was led by Kurt Eisner. A right wing student shot Eisner dead in February 1919 and the socialists and communists there fell out on how Bavaria should be governed after Eisner’s death. The Communists won out and a Soviet Republic of Bavaria came into being. This was a clear challenge to the authority of Ebert. The army and the Free Corps was asked to deal with the problem. The main city in Bavaria – Munich – was put under siege and by April food in the city was in very short supply.
On May 1st, 1919, soldiers from the army assisted by the Free Corps took over Munich killing at least 600 people – including children.
Ebert appeared to have established his power in Germany. Resistance in the north and south had been crushed. In the spring of 1919, Ebert must have felt a contented man. But in May, all of Germany was horrified by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles which were announced on May 7th 1919.
The government had done as requested: removed the Kaiser from power and established a democratic form of government. Germany and Ebert had expected a fait treaty. After all, it was the Kaiser who had led Germany at the outbreak of the war, not a democratically elected government. Now it was the government that had been forced to sign this treaty. Suddenly, politicians became the “November Criminals”. Right wing politicians said that the government had “stabbed Germany in the back” (the Dolchstusslegende). Despite Ebert’s protest, the government was forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles as the Allies had threatened to invade if they did not sign.
Field Marshall Hindenburg advised Ebert that the German Army could fight but would stand no chance of countering an Allied attack in the west.
However, he also told Ebert that he felt that it would be better if the German Army went down honourably rather than sign a disgraceful peace settlement. Other senior military commanders confirmed Hindenburg’s belief that the army would not be able to withstand an Allied assault.
With just 90 minutes left for Germany to sign the treaty, Berlin contacted Paris with the message that they would sign the Treaty of Versailles. On June 28th,1919, the treaty was signed.
The same day, a national German paper proclaimed :
Ebert’s problems were to continue………….
In March 1920, the Free Corps took over Berlin. Ebert and the government had to leave the city. The Free Corps were led by Wolfgang Kapp – a right wing nationalist who hated the government for signing the Versailles Treaty. This incident is called the Kapp Putsch. A putsch is an attempt to take over a country by the use of force. The Free Corps was joined by the Berlin police. The putsch failed because the workers of Berlin, who were not sympathetic to the Free Corps, went on general strike and paralysed the city. There were no buses, trams, trains and fuel supplies were ended. Kapp held Berlin for just 100 hours before he fled to Sweden. The putsch failed miserably. But once again, it was not the government that restored order. The government’s power was being maintained by others.
Also in March 1920, the workers of the Ruhr – Germany’s wealthiest industrial region – formed a Red Army of 50,000 men. The Germany Army managed to defeat this threat to start with, but it was only finally put down by the Free Corps who shot over 2000 workers. Many people in Germany were scared of the communists. By now, the world knew about the brutal murders of the Romanov family in Russia at the hands of Russian communists.
Many murders of left wing politicians occurred, usually committed by right wingers. Over 350 political murders took place between 1919 and 1922.
The most famous murder was that of Walter Rathenau. He was Germany’s Foreign Minister and was associated with the Versailles Treaty. The four men who murdered him were sentenced to an average of four years in prison. One of the killers, Ernst von Salomon, when interviewed about the murder, stated that Rathenau’s association with the peace settlement was enough to seal his fate.
In 1922, the French invaded the Ruhr as Germany had failed to pay her annual installment of reparations. Chaos ensued in Germany.