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Imagine the end of a devastating war. Mutinies have overthrown officers of the invading navy and army officers fear for their lives in units composed of angry hungry draftees tired of the slaughter. Despite the rebellion in the ranks, the generals and the Court wish to carry on until the bitter end. Unfortunately for the latter group, the war ends, forcing members of the Court into exile and the generals into negotiating with a parliament they have never respected.
Meanwhile, the members of parliament use their speeches and decrees to institute popular reforms in an attempt to prevent a communist revolution from destroying what parliament’s members think they have earned. As revolutionary protests and occupations bring the bourgeois regime to a standstill, industrialists and bankers grow concerned for their holdings and their hold on the government. The parliamentarians, despite speeches claiming solidarity with the demands of the people in the streets and their identification as democratic socialists, began to work with the generals and reactionary militias to take back the streets and destroy the people’s republics being established in cities across the nation. Protesters are shot in the streets. Leftist organizers are arrested, tortured and even murdered by the militias and vigilantes working with the militias. Two popular and important leaders are murdered in cold blood, their corpses tossed away like so much garbage.
The scenario above is but a brief description of the events in Germany now known as the German Revolution. Historically, there have been those who refused to call the months of rebellion and revolution in post World War One Germany a revolution. It seems that trend has silently disappeared. Most historians agree that there was a revolution in the Kaiser’s Germany towards the end of the Twentieth Century’s second decade. Although it failed in its most radical goals, including the end of capitalism, that revolution did establish many bourgeois rights and reforms. Unfortunately, many of those rights and reforms were destroyed in the years that followed when the Nazis consolidated their rule.
A recently published book, titled A People’s History of the German Revolution, explores the revolutionary outburst from the point of view of the soldier, the city dweller devastated by war and the everyday citizen of the nation. The author, historian William A. Pelz, discusses the rapid industrialization of the German economy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and its effects on the German citizenry. Most importantly, he paints a picture of a genuine grassroots socialist culture among the working class population. Encouraged by the socialist party and other left organizations, this culture defined the lives of these people and created a strong sense of solidarity among the working class. It was a solidarity which would be tested when the Kaiser and his generals entered what would become World War One and the Socialist party split between those who supported the war and those who opposed it. Pelz joins those who believe that the parliamentarians in the party were much more pro-war than the membership.
The history Pelz provides in this brief text discusses the betrayals of the party leadership while it describes the protests in the streets. In his telling, Pelz emphasizes the role of women in the revolution with a chapter discussing that influence. He begins by pointing out the well-known fact that women have been erased from history. From there, he moves from the role women played on the homefront during the war; striking against factory bosses and trying to keep from starving. Then, he discusses the leadership of women in the antiwar and radical wing of the party and the fear they provoked, especially from the reactionary right, but also from some on the left. An interesting aspect to the detailing of the response of the reactionaries to the role of women in the revolution is how little the arguments and slanders of the political right change. One could almost hear the sexist words of Donald Trump and his minions in the words of the German politicians attacking the women radicals..
A People’s History of the German Revolution is a concise and important look at the German Revolution of 1918-1920. What it lacks in length and breadth, it makes up for with its focus on the role of the common people. It is Pelz’s stated conviction that the people can make history and often do. Even if they are stymied in their final goal, the actions they undertake change the course of history. In his text, the author relates events, discusses statistics and considers causes. Simultaneously, he also considers the nature of history and why it matters who writes it and whose interests the writers represent. He is careful not to blame the ultimate failure of the revolution on any particular political reason. At the same time, he makes it clear he considers those social democrats who aligned themselves with the radical right militias and gave them the go-ahead to destroy the left wing of the German socialist movement to be prime culprits in that failure.