Fateful day

Philipp Scheidemann proclaims a republic.


The most tumultuous day in German history would have to be 9 November 1918. Some historians refer to it as Schicksalstag (Day of Fate). On that day in:

  • 1989, the Berlin Wall, that had divided Germany since 1961, fell.
  • 1938, there was a state-sponsored pogrom against Jews throughout Germany,  Reichskristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass.
  • 1923, an attempted coup in Munich led by Hitler failed but succeeded in giving him a national profile.
  • 1918, the monarchy came to an end when Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated.
  • 1848 the left-wing revolutionary Robert Blum was executed. The politician was a critic of anti-Semitism, supported equality of the sexes and a unified Germany. He was executed for his support of revolutionary activity.

The causes Blum supported – sans support of Jews – came to fruition during the Weimar Republic that became inevitable when the Kaiser abdicated, albeit reluctantly. 

The Kaiser had known since August Germany would not win the Great War but the military were determined to keep fighting. Even as peace was negotiated, the naval command were planning an attack on the British in the English Channel. But battle-weary sailors, eager to get home, mutinied. Some committed sabotage. The rebellion spread. The king of Bavaria, King Ludwig III, was deposed on 7 November.

The mood against the Kaiser and revolutionary fervour had been growing for weeks. The monarch wanted to lead his armies home from the front but decided against it when he was advised he may be harmed.

Events moved quickly because of the fear of a communist revolution:

  • Noon: the Kaiser’s abdication announced.
  • 2pm: Republic proclaimed.
  • 4pm: Communist revolution announced.
  • The last Imperial Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, announced the Kaiser’s abdication before he had agreed to it, making it a fait accompli.

The monarch’s departure was inevitable: there was mass support for a revolution and when the United States President, Woodrow Wilson,  made  abdication a pre-condition for peace negotiations, the army withdrew its support.

After announcing the abdication, von Baden appointed Friedrich Ebert to the Chancellorship in a questionable legal and constitutional move. There was no head of state to appoint a new chancellor and von Baden did not seek advice from his cabinet or endorsement from the Reichstag.

Prominent Social Democrat and Reichstag vice president Philipp Scheidemann knew Ebert wanted a National Assembly vote on the fate of the German monarchy. But Scheidemann feared it would inflame the revolution so Scheidemann, without consulting his party or the government, announced at 2pm from the Reichstag balcony the creation of a republic.

At 4pm  the “Free Socialist Republic of Germany” was announced by Spartacist (Communist) leader Karl Liebknecht. Ebert used his authority as leader of the Majority Social Democrats and as the newly appointed head of the government to promise the creation of a National Constitutional Assembly. He correctly thought it would prevent a Communist revolution.

The left wing Social Democratic Party split into three factions in 1917 over disagreement about the war’s conduct. There were the Majority and Independent factions and loosely organised Communist “Spartacus Group” led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. The German historian, Heinrich Winkler, called the split in the workers’ movement “a heavy handicap and a precondition of the first German democracy”.   

The republic was created amid left-win revolutionary fervour. It lacked support from the outset: the Communists on the left wanted to establish a Soviet-style state; the right wanted a dictatorship; many didn’t want democracy. The country’s war defeat and subsequent humiliating peace settlement were blamed on the “government” even though it was not responsible for war strategy.

It is ironical that the person responsible for the war’s conduct, chief of the General Staff, Paul von Hindenburg, became the republic’s second president in 1925. The army was adroitly propagated myths about the reasons for defeat. One of the most effective, and strongly exploited by right wing political parties, was that the army had not been beaten on the battlefield but had been “stabbed in the back” by mutinies in the Navy and revolution in Berlin. One of the biggest stab promoters was Great War Quartermaster General and second-in-command to Hindenburg, Erich Ludendorff. He had enormous influence about the war’s conduct. For him, the left wing republicans who overthrew the monarchy were responsible for the defeat. The German government leaders who signed the Armistice on November 11, 1918 were dubbed the “November Criminals”.

The ill-feeling about the peace agreement, government’s instability and the economic crisis caused by the Great Depression, was effectively exploited by the Nazis. Hitler was appointed Chancellor by Hindenburg on 30 January 1933.


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