The Historical Materialism Book Series plans to translate a book by German historian Axel Weipert containing ground-breaking research on the workers’ council movement in Berlin during the revolutionary tumult of 1919–20. But we need your help!
For a long time, Berlin’s council movement was considered no more than a brief episode that occurred just after the November Revolution of 1918. The common understanding is that of a transitional phenomenon paving the way for the parliamentary Weimar Republic. Moreover, many conservative historians have denounced the councils as being entirely undemocratic.
In his ground-breaking work The Second Revolution: The Council Movement of Berlin 1919–20, Axel Weipert significantly revises this picture. Based on a wealth of sources, Weipert shows that even in 1919–20, the council movement involved about one million active participants in Berlin alone – a fact overlooked by historians for nearly a century – and that the egalitarian aspirations of the councils and their mass following clearly pointed beyond the democratic limits of the Weimar order. The Second Revolution argues that the council movement was much broader-based than previous research has assumed, and that it was striving towards a socialism based on grassroots democracy – i.e. towards a social order determined to consistently abolish the prerogatives of the old elites in the military, in administration, and above all in the economy.
Until the publication of Weipert’s book in the original German language, it was mainly workers’ and soldiers’ councils that were examined in the relevant literature. Even if these represented the core of the council movement, The Second Revolution shows how broad the reception of the idea of council democracy really was: there were special councils for apprentices, intellectuals, artists, the unemployed, and students and pupils, whose activities are comprehensively discussed for the first time here. In another first, Weipert examines the role of women in the movement.
For a long time, research on the German revolution and the council movement was informed by Cold War dichotomies. GDR historians viewed the revolution as a missed opportunity, which was then made up for in East Germany after 1945. In their interpretation, the councils were merely a vehicle for party politics, and only the weakness of the Communist Party prevented a socialist transformation. West German authors, on the other hand, interpreted the councils at best as a potential, but not permanent, supplement to a democratic reconstruction from above. Both readings reduced the second phase of the revolution to a mere aftermath.
In contrast, by bringing to light the rank-and-file movement and independent role of the councils outside of parties and unions, The Second Revolution is paradigmatic of the new possibilities opened up in the historiography of the German Revolution after the end of the Cold War. The volume argues that Weimar Germany was in a revolutionary situation in 1919–20. It will be of particular interest to historians of the Weimar Republic and scholars of social movements, but it is also accessible to a broader left audience.
A broad range of sources, many of them previously unpublished, is analysed. In addition to 26 periodicals and around 50 autobiographical texts, The Second Revolution contains minutes of meetings, pamphlets, leaflets and posters and numerous official files from various archives.
Because of the great historical significance of the materials assessed in this work, the Goethe Institute of Germany has agreed to fund a part of the translation of The Second Revolution into English. Nevertheless, we are still 7,650 EUR short and currently raising funds to make this project possible. Please consider chipping in!