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History in Transition: The Revolution in Retrospect


History is not always the same. Its meaning is fought and haggled over, as is the case with the revolutionary events which took place from 1918 to 1923. In the GDR (East) and the Federal Republic of Germany (West), remembering the past was and is shaped by the social, political and cultural conditions of the particular present.

Retrospection in the GDR

Historical scholarship is of interest in legitimizing the ruling SED's claim to power and is therefore partly subject to the state party’s influence. The evaluation of the events of 1918/19 and the revolutionary period that follows, do not remain unaffected by the circumstances. The relationship to them is ambivalent. On the one hand, they are the founding context of the KPD, and on the other, looked at from a Communist perspective, the German revolution failed when compared to the October Revolution in Russia. According to Walter Ulbricht, referring to Stalin, the compromise is to speak of “a bourgeois revolution using proletarian means”. In Erich Honecker's time, there is no longer any talk of “proletarian means”. In both cases, the focus is on criticism of the treacherous actions of the right-wing leaders of Social Democracy and positive references to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. According to official interpretation, the right-wing SPD leaders succeeded in winning the councils over to their side thus favoring the emergence of a bourgeois class society, despite the efforts of the Spartacus League to point the way towards socialism. The foundation of the KPD is regarded as the most important achievement during these revolutionary times, while the founding of the Weimar Republic, in contrast to opinions in the Federal Republic of Germany, is not considered a success, but as a defeat, because it blocks the way towards a communist future. Only a Marxist-Leninist cadre party could have helped the proletariat to victory. With the foundation of the GDR, the goals of the revolutionary workers finally count as being fulfilled. In Erich Honecker’s words: “The development and growth of our socialist German nation state, is the fulfillment and the living legacy of the revolutionary struggles in November, 1918.” Whether the revolutionary uprisings are judged as "socialist" or "bourgeois-democratic" does not depend on the supporters of these uprisings, but on the results. Only in the last years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the interpretations of the Revolution are permitted to become more diverse.

Retrospection in the Federal Republic of Germany

During the post-war years, the assessment of the revolution in the Federal Republic of Germany is marked by the fear of Bolshevism and the rejection of socialism. In 1918/19, the general opinion is whether the revolution would lead to a proletarian dictatorship or a parliamentary republic in alliance with the deposed conservative rulers. In the 1960s, historians begin to highlight the democratic and emancipatory potential of the left-wing workers' councils. The role of the Social Democrats is now being critically questioned and possible alternatives for action by the Majority Social Democratic Party (MSPD) are discussed. It is taken into account that the outcome of many revolutionary events between 1918 and 1923, is not always certain. Since the 1980s and in the post-reunification period, the revolution has received little or no attention. The new openness that became apparent in the historiography of the GDR has come to a sudden end.

Today, the revolution above all, is a projection screen of unfulfilled wishes and hopes, but also of a great deal of doubt and uncertainty. The 100th anniversary of the revolution has led to increased attention being paid to the November-Complex and the years 1918-1923. The field of tension which has opened up between the interpretation of the history of democracy and the history of dictatorship, still offers ample material for discussion.

die naTo e.V. 2020