The Council of People’s Deputies

Achievements of the new government, poster, late November 1918, DHM

By 12 November 1918 the council of people’s deputies has already issued a series of decrees, with promises of more to come. This means several of the most important demands of the social democratic workers’ movement become law within a matter of days. It will take years, however, to finally put them into practice. Other important measures, such as democratizing both the government administration and the army, fail to move forward.

The members of the council of people’s deputies

Postcard showing the members of the council of people’s deputies, DHM

The council of people’s deputies has three members from the majority Social Democratic party (MSPD) and three from the independent Social Democratic party (USPD), each in charge of different departments. The leaders of these two parties, Friedrich Ebert (MSPD, responsible for the military and the interior) and Hugo Haase (USPD, responsible for foreign affairs and colonies), serve as the council’s chairs. Philipp Scheidemann (MSPD) is responsible for finances, Otto Landsberg (MSPD) for press and intelligence services, Wilhelm Dittmann (USPD) for demobilization and public health, and Emil Barth (USPD) for social policy and liaison with the councils. The two parties are considered equal on paper, but high-ranking state officials are more closely aligned with the MSPD, having served in the previous government appointed by the emperor.

Universal and equal voting rights for women and men

International Woman’s Day poster, 1914
free license

Only men were allowed to vote in the German empire (1871-1918). Moreover, Prussia and other German states had a three-tiered system by which the votes of property owners counted more than those of workers. The Social Democratic party (SPD) demanded universal and equal voting rights, and called for demonstrations in 1910. The women’s movement has fought for women’s suffrage since the late 19th century. Starting in 1911, it demonstrates for this every year on International Women’s Day on 8 March. Germany declares universal, free and equal voting rights for women and men on 12 November 1918, becoming one of the first states to introduce women’s suffrage.

Freedom of assembly and expression

Proclamation by Berlin police president Traugott von Jagow on SPD regarding demonstrations

During the German empire the government could use legislation and other measures to limit freedom of expression and the press. The same applied to assemblies and demonstrations. The Prussian authorities were particularly restrictive in this respect. The SPD circumvented these restrictions by calling for mass rallies. As of 12 November 1918, basic freedoms of assembly and expression are now guaranteed. Some restrictions remain, for example during a state of emergency. In practice, however, a great number of court rulings against critical journalists and newspaper publishers in the Weimar Republic limit the freedom of expression and the press. The judicial system is still dominated by personnel from the imperial era.

Freedom of religion

Drawing by George Grosz in the satirical magazine, „Jedermann sein eigener Fußball”, 1919

The church exerted significant influence over society in the early 20th century, taking a strict Christian view of public morality and education. The German empire was dominated by Protestants, and both Jews and Catholics were discriminated against. Jews and Catholics constituted a minority of the population, especially in Prussia. The SPD calls for the separation of church and state. On 12 November 1918 freedom of religion is now guaranteed, including the freedom not to engage in religious activity. Relevant measures are nevertheless met with resistance. Schools are no longer under church supervision, but attempts to abolish school prayer and mandatory religious instruction fail in the face of strong protests. In 1919 the „Weimar school compromise“ guarantees the continuing existence of parochial schools, but also establishes the option of secular schools.

Abolishing the Prussian Servants‘ Law

A valet hands his master the newspaper, 1900
free license

The Servants‘ Law in the German empire contained special regulations for domestic and agricultural workers. They were not permitted to form trade unions or go on strike. Their individual freedoms were also greatly restricted and subject to the discretion of their employers. Women who worked as servants or maids in the countryside, especially in eastern Prussia, were especially affected. The Servants‘ Law was abolished by decree on 12 November 1918.

The 8-hour day

Poster calling for May Day demonstrations and an 8-hour day, 1914. Archiv der sozialen Demokratie der Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

The 8-hour day is one of the oldest demands of the workers‘ movement. Rallies have been for it every year on 1 May since the late 19th century. Until 1914, a 10-hour day is common in the manufacturing sector. During the First World War, this increases to 12 hours, and sometimes even 16. In November 1918 the council of people’s deputies decrees an 8-hour day. This is part of a compromise between trade unions and employers known as the Stinnes-Legien agreement, signed on 15 November. However, the 8-hour day is soon opposed after the revolution when economic difficulties set in. Regulations are loosened in the Weimar Republic and exceptions permit up to 10 hours a day. The 8-hour day is only reintroduced after the Second World War.

Unemployment assistance

Stamp line at a Berlin labour agency, 1932/33, Bildarchiv der Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek, Munich

For many years, losing one’s job meant losing one’s livelihood. For most people, the only and shameful recourse is to seek municipal relief for the poor. To counter high unemployment following the First World War, the decree of 12 November 1918 provides a small and temporary amount of unemployment assistance. Recipients have to go to an employment agency several times a week to get a stamp, an activity called „going stamping“. The agencies can require unpaid labour from the unemployed in order to evaluate their willingness to work. Unemployment assistance is an important part of the new welfare state and a major step towards unemployment insurance which is introduced in 1927. The insurance system will later collapse when millions of unemployed people need it during the global economic crisis that starts in 1929.

The continuity problem

Poster from the Spartacus League (which joined the KPD on 31 December 1918) depicting economic, state and especially military continuity, 1919, DHM

Despite changes at the highest level of government, the administrative practices and state institutions continue largely as before. The people’s deputies are working to ensure sufficient food supplies and to demobilize the army. They are not willing to do away with assistance and expertise from existing ministers and civil servants. The new government therefore upholds these officials‘ authority despite protests from the workers‘ and soldiers‘ councils. This is especially true of the military. The council of people’s deputies upholds the officers‘ authority vis-à-vis the soldiers’ councils in a decree of 12 November 1918. Continuity will prove to be a heavy burden for the Weimar Republic, as many of its officials are from the imperial era and some have anti-democratic and authoritarian leanings.

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