The Councils

Reich conference of workers‘ and soldiers‘ councils in Berlin, December 1918, Federal Archives

Councils are a form of assembly democracy. The assemblies pass resolutions and elect delegates who represent the interests of the assembled individuals in local, regional and national bodies. This form of democracy generally arises in periods of large social movements and transformations, such as in conjunction with mass strikes or revolutions. In Germany, the first councils are formed during widespread strikes in the First World War. In the November Revolution, workers’ and soldiers’ councils form throughout the country. They are the actual driving forces behind the revolution.

Who is represented by the councils?

Meeting of the soldiers’ councils in the plenary room of the Reichstag, 21 November 1918, Federal Archives

Workers and soldiers in large cities elect delegates from their workplaces and units. In smaller towns, delegates are chosen at public gatherings. They are often well-known party and trade union officials from the workers’ movement. The delegates chosen by soldiers commonly advocate for peace. Some officers are also elected. The Berlin workers’ and soldiers’ council passes a resolution at the turn of 1918–19 to include independent tradesmen and small business owners who do not have employees. Although women make up a large share of the workforce, very few of them are delegates.

Activities of the councils

Bread is distributed at the workers’ and soldiers’ council in the Reichstag, Berlin, DHM

The councils form on their own at the local level, and exercise control over existing authorities. Often they are compelled to address everyday problems such as providing food and coal. Disputes soon arise with the preexisting institutions over whom is responsible for what. The new government in Germany gradually restricts the councils’ authority. Following elections to municipal and state governments and to the national assembly in early 1919, the rationale for having councils is increasingly called into question. There is also a parallel trend toward radicalization, with councils temporarily taking power in some locations. However, most of the councils disband by the end of 1919.

From an executive council to an all-Germany general conference of workers’ and soldiers’ councils

Meeting of the executive council, Federal Archives

Three thousand workers’ and soldiers’ representatives vote to establish a council of people’s deputies on 10 November 1918 at Circus Busch in Berlin, and also an executive council of workers’ and soldiers’ councils. The executive council initially functions as the councils‘ highest body and is charged with supervising the government. However, it views itself as a provisional authority, and convenes a conference of workers’ and soldiers’ councils from all over the country. Some 489 delegates, including two women, gather at the Prussian house of representatives in Berlin from 16 to 21 December 1918. Most of them are loyal to the majority Social Democratic party (MSPD), with only a minority supporting the independent Social Democratic party (USPD) and the radical left. The discussions and the resolutions passed at this conference go beyond simply confirming government policies. They establish clear goals and ideals that are supported by a large part of the council movement across party lines.

National assembly or council republic?

Poster designed by Max Pechstein for the national assembly elections, January 1919

During the German empire (1871-1918), the social democratic workers’ movement sought to establish a parliamentary democracy. Most delegates to the general conference held 16-21 December 1918 also pursue this aim. They seek to establish socialism via parliamentary majorities, fearing the risk of civil war otherwise. For critics on the radical left, however, parliaments are a means by which the propertied class maintains political power. They demand a council system in which wealthy individuals, businesspeople and large estate owners are not entitled to vote. The majority of the conference, however, agrees to universal elections to a constituent national assembly on 19 January 1919. This assembly meets in Weimar and does not yield a socialist majority. The Weimar constitution is therefore a compromise between the social democratic workers’ movement, bourgeois liberals and political Catholicism.

The „Points of Hamburg“

Expression of militarism with children in Prussian uniforms, photo c. 1910

In the German empire the Social Democratic party (SPD) rejected the military’s powerful role and branded the rigid hierarchies and unquestioned obedience to officers as militarism. It proposed a democratic people’s army in which all members are considered equal. During the revolution of 1918–19, soldiers’ councils take up this idea. Prompted by soldier delegates, the general conference of councils passes a resolution called the „Points of Hamburg“ named after existing regulations in Hamburg. It calls for soldiers‘ councils to elect officers and control the chain of command. Its points, however, are rejected by the army command and not implemented. This leads to bitterness and conflicts in early 1919.

Steps toward socialism

MSPD poster for the Berlin general strike in March 1919 calling for a socialist economy, Federal Archives

In the German empire, socialism was the declared long-term goal of the SPD. In economic terms, this meant public ownership of the means of production. This in turn required a process of socialization, namely takeover by society. In the wake of the November Revolution in 1918, many workers demand socialization. Sharing these aspirations, delegates to the general conference of councils call on the German government to socialize relevant industries, generally understood to be mining and heavy industry. MSPD members of the government, however, wish to leave such far-reaching measures to the national assembly and stall for time. A strike movement in early 1919 leads to adoption of an article on socialization into the Weimar constitution. A similar article also appears in the Basic Law (Grundgesetz) of the Federal Republic of Germany.

The „central council of the German socialist republic“

Meeting of the central council in December 1918, Federal Archives

The general conference of councils elects a central council as its executive body, whose main task is to supervise the German government. The USPD refuses to join, however, because the central council is not authorized to confirm or reject laws. The central council therefore consists solely of MSPD members, who generally support their party comrades in the government. Strikes and protests prompt them to criticize the government in spring 1919, yet they continue to support it. The central council views itself as a transitional body until the national assembly is convened. On 4 February 1919, it transfers its authority to the newly-elected parliament. It then disbands following a second conference of councils held in April 1919.

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