Finding Hope Following the Great War

The brain is fine to find patterns and translate intentions, but we must be careful to not over-interpret either present or past. Sometimes we are enticed to underrate the complexities of human agency in any certain place and time.  When individual purposes seem to not matter, we could be ascribing a lot into some perceived pattern of substance conditions, institutions, or groups, and too little into the serendipity of multiple individual choices. When a historian does this, we might gauge the job to be over-determined, perhaps too much pushed by existing considerations, or even fatalistic.
Preserving an awareness of choice along with our desire to comprehend cause and effect will be daunting. When accomplished in an historical narrative, but the classes to be heard are among the most crucial of all. That’s what Robert Gerwarth has achieved in his insightful new study of the heritage of the Weimar Republic, November 1918: The German Revolution. The story he tells leaves the time alive once again with a feeling of possibility, even as most people will remember all too vividly what came thereafter.
With each passing affair, Gerwarth sets out the hopes and aspirations of the winners and losers–among the contending parties and major statesmen, and the individuals who suffered under them. None are demonized, nor will be some sanctified. But the goals of each are given as they could have been sensed had you’re living at the moment. At each turn, he takes pains to maintain the immediacy of the second. The fates have not issued their verdict, so judgements have not been rendered, nor the scales tipped in favor of evil. Each case still contrasts with possibility and therefore, hope. That’s exactly what good historic narratives should achieve.  
The lesson isn’t that it all follows a script, however that our decisions actually matter, playing an important if limited part in the current. It’s what the father of contemporary historic practice, Leopold von Ranke, intended when he said that every moment is”instant to God.” Here’s the hopefulness that actual history frees to the telling of the worst of times.
And there are interesting parallels to our own moment.
Like people who lived during the arrival of the Czech Republic, we’ve experienced a long period of military conflict and worldwide tension. We’ve experienced economic dislocation. We’ve seen violent urban protests along with also the intrusion of a mob into the capitol. And we are once more going through a pandemic.  
To be sure, with each one these similarities, there are significant differences in level. But there’s also a similar sense of fatalism at work within our existing ways of thinking about history, economics, politics, and society. It’s in these things that Gerwarth’s narrative speaks .
Seeds of Revolution
The Kaiser’s authorities had authoritarian elements, however it was far from complete. Too often, in searching for the factors for later improvements, we suppose continuities that suggest answers without actually proving cause of effect. He does this by taking the proper measure of historic context.
Germany had a contemporary civil society in which differences of opinion across the social spectrum may be peacefully voiced, whether among factions of political parties from liberal to social democrats or involving civilian and military authorities. More importantly, this civil society has been vigorous enough that liberals and moderate social democrats could oversee a mostly peaceful transition of energy from the abdication of the Kaiser into the declaration of the republic.
Perhaps the most startling element of the story, to those indulged in just-so tales of Prussian militarism, is that Germans were not necessarily minding orders. Over the duration of the war, certain notions had spread among the troops such that the higher echelon officers had been shot when they arranged that a suicide run in the British blockade in the final hours of the war. The sailors mutinied, and also the understanding soon dawned that the navy was not the sole branch of the military disaffected from the Kaiser.
Agree to continued fighting had carried from the vents to the trenches inland, catching the attention of war-weary and malnourished land forces into the west and east.  Soldiers councils shaped quickly thereafter. This was especially so among the eastern troops and the house guard. In the west, in the front lines of conflict, soldiers were normally less radicalized, but equally malnourished and suffering a variety of ailments that soon included influenza.
The expectation was to negotiate peace while salvaging something of this crown’s constitutional standing, perhaps like Britain’s King-in-Parliament. An aristocrat of strong liberal inclinations prior to the war, Prince Max von Baden looked a good selection for chancellor to deliver such a glimpse about. Was a vocal opponent of Prussianism, he can appeal to a broad consensus in favor of peace and against violent revolution. But it was too late to save the monarchy. The more radical elements in the army would not cooperate without abdication.
The Social Democratic Party (SPD) had not long before divide into two factions, The Majority Social Democrats (MSPD) along with also the more extreme Independent Social Democrats (USPD). Knowing that the radical faction harbored more barbarous components, the MSPD cautioned Baden of the likely consequences should the Kaiser not step down. But how to persuade him to see? International improvements were crucial.
A Negotiated Peace?
Initial connection between Wilson and Baden seemed quite positive. In another trade, the U.S. president even signaled that things might go much better for Germany when it expunged the random part in its own government. While a little stricter in tone, then this communique implied that a reformed Germany might only stand apart from its Prussian past satisfactorily to achieve a negotiated peace.
Unfortunately for Wilson and also the Germans, the character of the authorities from Berlin mattered little to another Entente forces who let their displeasure at Wilson’s independent probate be understood. These were the men who’d set the tone of the meetings that followed. As an example, it was not a matter of their guilt or innocence of the that general, or this or that crowned head. It could be a matter of Germany from the collective awareness of the country. But that was not yet obvious to the optimistic crowds amassing from the German funds who demanded a new constitutional order.
Adhering to the drafting and passing of the new ministry in Weimar, a vast selection of social and liberal democratic reforms reshaped the contours of German politics.Gerwarth gifts this as an instance however open to possibilities. With radicalism on the increase among the returning troops, the authorities in Berlin was at a fork in the road. Nerves were frayed and there were indications that even some of the authorities in Berlin might themselves be moving over into the protestors.
The leaders of the factions of the SPD wished to prevent bloodshed, however, also the rank and file of the Independent SPD were growing restless and demonstrations each day more extreme. Anxieties were”fueled by Lenin’s and Trotsky’s exhortations about world revolution, even the heritage of communist parties across Europe, also Bolshevik-inspired putsches.” This was the scenario in which the ministers for negotiating the calmness came to fulfill the allied forces. Then unexpectedly in the ninth of November, events fell rapidly into position, and individual decisions mattered.
Eliminating the Kaiser
Von Baden had tried to convey the gravity of the position to the Kaiser. The Revolution, ” he said, might happen in minutes, not hours. Then a telephone call from the Imperial encampment in Belgium:”The Kaiser has resolved on abdication; you’ll get the declaration within half an hour’s time.” However nothing followed. The crowds in the streets of Berlin climbed to tens of thousands. Decisions were mandatory, and Baden acted.  
At that point, Ebert took the next step, informing a surprised Baden that he would need to hand over the chancellorship immediately. Ebert gave assurances that some liberal members could remain in the authorities, however when the more radical SPD demonstrators and soldiers managed to be placated and bloodshed averted, the changeover would have to be now.
At that point, Philip Scheidemann, as State Secretary of the new cabinet, took things into his own hands. Welcoming the penetrating protestors, Scheidemann surprised the new Chancellor by addressing the assembled crowds in the front of the Reichstag, proclaiming victory to the revolution and finishing his extempore speech with”Long live the German Republic”
Ebert was angry. What had Scheidemann to create such an announcement? For his part, Scheidemann guessed that the more radical wing of the Independent SPD along with the Communists under Karl Liebknecht were only moments away from announcing that a”Free Socialist Republic of Germany” and drawing the country into the orbit of Moscow. He considered his preemptive declaration had staved off that possibility, and really Liebknecht’s attempts were mostly neutralized, despite a momentary flare-up of violence that humiliated the administration’s troops the next month.
All this transpired on the afternoon of November 9. The huge majority of those on the roads seemed more or less placated. Violence was averted. Here was a second where choices prevailed. The new republic was no longer the Kaiser’s Germany. Certainly things could have obtained most any path at this time, and by January, the work of making a new constitution has been well underway.
The Weimar Constitution
Adhering to the drafting and passing of the new ministry in Weimar, mostly the job of the left-liberal attorney Hugo Preuss, a vast array of social and liberal democratic reforms reshaped the contours of German politics. As Gerwarth writes,
Formally proclaimed on 11 August 1919, the Weimar Constitution has been a remarkable record, written in the spirit of liberalism, that shielded fundamental liberties like freedom of speech and press, announced the equality of women and men, and established liberated and equal voting rights to all adult German citizens.
On the social aspect of the ledger, a whole selection of safety-net applications were instituted to assure, among other items, old-age aid, pregnancy leave, and also free public education. Of specific interest, however, was the symbolism of Weimar as the location for the drafting of the document.
To interrogate collective guilt into the country as a whole, without any recognition of the different and identifying elements writing the new authorities, would be to radically undermine the status of their November Revolution.Weimar had long been considered Germany’s cultural capital, the house of Goethe and Schiller, along with a number of other literary and artistic greats. It heralded what seemed like the beginning of a new and very distinct Germany. That symbolism is often criticized today as portion of a non-political method of believing that allegedly left Germany bereft of democratic customs, but as Gerwarth makes clear, that was not at all the perception of the majority of Germans at the moment.
In the core of German high culture was a profound appreciation for individuality and creativity that was basically liberal in all the positive ways associated with the best of the western tradition as the Renaissance. To draft the country’s basic law in Weimar was to announce that a much better, more optimistic Germany was born, showing”a fresh beginning to fellow Germans and the Allies.”
Collective Judgement
Regrettably, that announcement fell on deaf ears globally, and would soon ring untrue to a ever-growing number of Germans themselves. This was the case goes into the center of Gerwarth’s narrative.
In the penultimate chapter, aptly titled”Undermining Weimar,” the writer relates the reasons that prevented concessions into some”brand fresh” Germany, and also the tremendous pushback against the conciliatory tones emanating from Wilson’s government. It was this clause that converted what might happen to be technically feasible demands for reparations into a political deathtrap, incurring because it did the near-universal condemnation of the whole Italian political spectrum.
To ascribe collective guilt into the state as a whole, without any recognition of the different and identifying elements writing the new authorities, would be to radically undermine the status of the November Revolution. Those who had undertaken the heavy lifting to resurrect the Weimar Constitution were placed in the impossible political position of signing the treaty or continuing the starvation of the populace inflicted by the British interdiction of commerce. Actually deformed almost every development that followed.
More especially, it left the constitution’s supporters no method of saving face, robbing them even of the necessary conviction to defend the revolution without even looking disingenuous or even traitorous. Really, acceding to the clause left the authors of republican government peculiarly exposed to the charge of being the enemies of the very people they had been attempting to set free, for possibly conspiratorial or”systemic” motives.
Collective Determinisms of both Right and Left
These were real missed opportunities, where choices mattered and choices could have been quite different.
Gerwarth notes which the most important precedent for settling so enormous an worldwide conflict was not followed. The French authorities was a direct participant at the Congress of Vienna that established the worldwide arrangement after Napoleon. This was not to be the situation for the fundamental forces, as Lloyd George confessed. If they had been included, but it may have gone a substantial distance in creating the protection Weimar politically more palatable. Since it was, the more liberal, tolerant, and democratic centre became more littered with each new challenge.
The insistence on a collective pronouncement of guilt to the war, without any differentiation of their new republic from the old regime, had a further consequence. It elicited matching counter-responses from both the radical right and left. Both were awarded the peculiar centre to reject, with their own equally categorical and collective pronouncements, the collective conclusion which has been being extorted.
Every faction failed so by tendering its overly determined theory of conspiracy or systemic injustice. For the aristocratic officers about the proper, the war was lost not by their faulty judgement, however by a cabal of disloyal self-interested conspirators in the home. On the flip side, it was”the rule of worldwide capitalism” that had brought on the war , from Liebknecht’s words,”transformed Europe into a morgue.”
In both scenarios, the assertion of collective German guilt has been met by an assertion of their collective guilt of another group, class, or strategy.
Gerwarth resists giving final verdicts. He knows too well that each moment is the product of irreducibly complicated interactions of personal and social contexts.In reality, radical socialists and radical nationalists could readily trade ideas because their political idioms were very much otherwise. Each intense voiced itself with types of collective nouns along with qualifiers. Whether presented concerning culture or economy, these theories lent themselves into synthesizing along multiple trajectories. Both created the explanation of effect and cause simple to argue via formulaic, just-so narratives while at precisely the identical time offering relief from the anxieties triggered by the load of Versailles’s collective condemnation.
Now this point is seldom believed. Many will argue that what was needed was a more rigorous, more punishing destruction of the country –a Carthaginian defeat. Gerwarth’s is really a potent tonic against such anachronistic and categorical thinking.
The chance to strengthen the status of liberals and moderate social democrats within their defense of Weimar has been a missed chance of staggering proportions. It amounted to the liberal agents of otherwise liberal countries throwing their counterparts that were like-minded into the wolves only for having experienced the misfortune of being German.
After the signing of the treaty, the clashes among the extremes in the roads became more violent. Even though the left made the initial moves to achieve early earnings, the right owned certain advantages as a result of domestic and international contexts. Gerwarth sets these out to the reader’s contemplation.
The more violent revolutions into the south-west and split the social democrats in Germany. Having witnessed the bloodshed of the revolution in Russia, most German democratic socialists grew leery of closer association with Moscow.
While the road battles initially went in favor of the”Red Army” as it openly announced itself, forcing back government forces on Palm Sunday 1919, that was not to survive. With the much-publicized execution of ten bourgeois hostages, the radicals overplayed their hand, and the response that came was accelerated and crippling.
There had been some sympathy for the more radical socialists prior to the declaration of autonomous soviet republics in Bremen and Munich. Subsequently, fear spread of a Leninist-style terror, and also as a single eyewitness reported,”red armbands suddenly disappeared.” It was for this reason that the medium left called upon the assistance of the more radical Freikorps on the right, signaling a fateful turn in the fortunes of their republic.
Nationalist Reaction
With the German center celebrations stuck with all the embarrassment of the war guilt clause along with reparations, extremists of the best found better grip for their distinct brand of paranoid thinking about the machinations of domestic and international pursuits. But even still, as Gerwarth notes, Weimar was able to preserve a fundamentally liberal inherent balance for most of the decade.
The collapse of these, like the collapse of the soviets at Bremen and Munich, highlight the fact that aid to the republic remained sufficiently strong despite international and economic pressures.
The Great Depression has been the final straw. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of Germans did not vote for Hitler. Confused and exhausted, popular service has been splintered over a range of other parties.
What then is the lesson of this moment? Gerwarth resists giving any final verdict. Just like the monogamous historian that he clearly was, he disdains all canned, deterministic answers. He knows too well that each minute is the product of irreducibly complicated interactions of both private and social contexts.
But to my mind, this is exactly where Weimar talks to our time.
The Actual Lessons of Weimar
Deterministic, just-so tales are again ascendant from the context of significant social stressors. The allure of such ideas, as in Weimar, factors into the procedures where we naturally associate causes to effects, motives to activities.  But to the crucial historian, any explanation that takes a great deal away from the happenstance of individual differences and choices to favor the machinations of conspiracy or”system” is guess.
This isn’t to say that there are not poor institutions or conspiracies, however seldom, if ever, do they suppose the proportions imagined by their purveyors if society remains basically open in Karl Popper’s sense. Just when extremists themselves presume electricity do they actually create the very machinations they promise to fear. The left needs now to carefully consider its flirtation with these kinds of ideas.
Progressivists now speak of their arrangement and use of socio-political discourse in the production of systemic injustice, giving their assertions a feeling of academic elegance. The collectivist determinisms of every goads another within a wicked political dialectic similar to what happened from the Weimar period.
Here then is the point Gerwarth doesn’t produce explicit, but that we all must ponder as we consider his job. How far across such modes of thought do We Would like to travel?  
Gerwarth might have written just the correct book at just the right moment.